Keys overflowed with holiday tourists

MARATHON -- Florida Keys roads and resorts were filled over the holidays as visitors headed south in droves to celebrate the new year.

“It’s always insanity down here between Christmas and New Year’s,” said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, “but this year has been incredibly busy.”

Traffic delays on U.S. 1 were frequent all week in all the usual spots, said Deputy Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

“We know it’s frustrating for everybody but it’s a crowded road that can only hold so many cars,” Herrin said.

Long backups in the southbound lanes were reported at the approach to the Jewfish Creek Bridge on Key Largo, the Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada, at the traffic light on Big Pine Key, and on Stock Island at the entrance to Key West.

“There have been traffic issues all week,” Herrin said. “The positive side is that when it’s this busy, the number of serious accidents tends go down because people are traveling slowly.”

At the Islander Resort in Islamorada, Eric and Lynne Perry spent Thursday savoring their last day in the Keys sunshine before returning home to Derby, England.

“We’re leaving paradise to go back to work and reality,” Eric said.

“It’s warmer in England than it usually is but it’s still cold compared to this,” said Lynne, clad for swimming. “Do we want to go? Absolutely not.”

The Perrys marked a decade of spending three December weeks in Islamorada with this year’s visit for “the sunshine, the fishing and the company.”

Factors that tourism professionals say are contributing to the higher visitation include:

n An improving economy.

n A Christmas-to-New Year’s week that ends with a three-day weekend.

n Balmier than in a cold January 2011.

“Historically Christmas to New Year’s has always been good but this weekend has been a particularly good,” Weinhofer said.

Reservations at the association’s nearly 100 member properties indicate the upswing may continue through March.

“In recent years, visitors had fallen into the habit of not booking in advance, just coming down at the last minute,” Weinhofer said.

“In talking to our members, I’m hearing there has been a huge amount of business booked in February,” she said. “Not only vacationers but small business groups, as well.”

“Now people actually have some idea what will be going on for the next three months,” Weinhofer said. “It’s been a few years since they had that luxury.”