FLORIDA KEYS -- The official numbers aren't yet in, but as Florida's new school year begins, local business leaders are hailing what they say was a landmark summer travel season.
"I'd say it's one of the busiest summers we've had in about 10 years," said Gayle Tippett, owner of Strike Zone Charters in Big Pine Key and the chair the Monroe County Tourists Development Council's advisory committee for Big Pine.
Tippett's sentiments were echoed last week by Daniel Samess, director of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, who said that reports from his membership have been consistently upbeat.
"It's been jam-packed," Samess said.
Meanwhile, in Key Largo, drop-ins at the chamber of commerce's mile marker 106 visitor center are up an estimated 5 percent from last summer, according to chamber Executive Director Craig Cope.
As of press time, the TDC was still awaiting reports on room occupancy and room rates for July.
Reports compiled by industry analyst Smith Travel for May and June showed that tourism at the start of the hot weather season was up from 2013.
The room occupancy rate improved 2.6 percent in May and 1.5 percent in June, while room prices were up 13.5 percent in May and 5.7 percent in June.
The early part of this year was also robust for the Keys' largest industry. In fact, the area's lodging occupancy rate of 88.1 percent from January through March led the nation.
Big crowds this summer have brought some inconveniences, of course. On two recent Saturdays traffic entering the islands in the late afternoon backed up almost to Florida City on the 18-Mile Stretch.
Harold Wheeler, the TDC's executive director, said he even ran into delays heading south on a recent Sunday afternoon, a time when traffic is normally only heavy heading out of the Keys.
"Unbelievable, coming and going," Wheeler said of that Sunday.
Traffic jams entering the islands have also sometimes extended further, reaching Exit 2 on Florida's Turnpike.
Though the Florida Department of Transportation tracks traffic on the Stretch on a daily basis, the agency only compiles those figures annually, spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz wrote in an email to the Free Press last week. She added that construction projects wouldn't be a factor in any recent traffic entering the Keys since roadwork in Key Largo was completed in June.
"So while there may be delays present, we do not have information on why these delays are caused," Ruiz-Paz wrote.
Locals in Marathon have definitely noticed a traffic increase this summer, Samess said.
"I think most understand that it is a good thing," he said.
Cope said he's heard a few traffic-related gripes from Key Largo residents as well. But it doesn't seem to be bothering the tourists.
"We have not had any visitors saying anything with regard to 'your traffic is terrible,'" he said.