Agents reschedule itineraries in Bonnie's wake

NEW YORK -- Travel agents last week were busy rescheduling clients who were heading into or out of the Carolinas and Virginia, as Hurricane Bonnie slammed into beach resorts and coastal communities during the busy summer season.

Bonnie was the first major storm of this year's Atlantic hurricane season, which experts are predicting will have above-average activity well into October.

Bonnie blew into shore last Wednesday, damaging buildings, causing severe, widespread flooding and cutting off power to nearly a half-million people.

The biggest concerns in the Virginia Beach area have been from travelers wondering if they are going to get out of the area airports on time, according to Robin Tucker, general manager of the travel department at Great Atlantic Travel & Tours in Virginia Beach, Va. "I've had several business travelers reschedule or cancel trips because they were concerned they wouldn't get out or back in because of the storm," Tucker said. "It's frustrating because what do you tell them when you have no answers about the storm?"

At press time, hotel occupancy in Virginia Beach dropped to 30% from the seasonal average of 90%, said Ron Kuhlman, director of marketing for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitor Development Department. "Until Bonnie checks out, we won't have any idea of physical damage, but the economic loss from lack of tourist spending can be measured in millions," Kuhlman said.

Despite Bonnie's fury, Myrtle Beach, S.C., remained relatively unscathed and was open for business Thursday following the lifting of an evacuation order, tourism officials said.

Officials in Horry County, which includes the popular Myrtle Beach area, reported damaged buildings, downed trees and power lines, and sporadic power outages in the aftermath of the storm. The storm damaged "a few hotel properties," said Ashby Ward, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, who estimated that 90% of the area's businesses reopened Thursday.

A spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, who toured several Myrtle Beach hotels, said the damage was limited to flooding, broken windows, ripped signs and awnings, and widespread debris. The spokesman said officials estimate the storm pounded Myrtle Beach's economy to the tune of more than $10 million a day in lost tourism revenue.

Elsewhere along South Carolina's coast, tourism officials said Hurricane Bonnie bypassed Charleston, Kiawah Island and Hilton Head Island without causing any damage, with hotels, restaurants and attractions open for business.

In fact, officials there reported an increase in business as vacationers and residents up the coast fled the affected areas. "Meetings and conventions currently on the books were not affected by Bonnie," said Susan Thomas, vice president of the Hilton Island Chamber of Commerce Visitor and Convention Bureau.

At press time, North Carolina's 300 miles of coastline was still under an evacuation order, and officials said it was too soon to assess damage to the area's tourism infrastructure.

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development said tourism last year pumped $27 million a week into the state's 20 coastal communities.

About 500,000 residents and tourists fled inland from beach resorts and coastal communities as the hurricane approached the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina early last week.

Southern Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, particularly Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but Bonnie passed by the area without harm, officials said.

Pamela Stack, owner of R&R Travel in Miami, said her main concern when a storm is approaching is keeping clients calm. "Everybody gets all excited when they hear about a bad storm coming," Stack said. "I think one of my jobs is to calm people down so they don't panic. I try to tell them that doesn't solve anything."

For instance, Stack said a client called her and wanted to know what she could do about her son vacationing in Puerto Rico as Bonnie approached. "There's really not a whole lot I can do; each storm is different," Stack said. "In this case, turns out Bonnie didn't touch Puerto Rico."

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