As spring breakers pack Smathers Beach in Key West, and SUVs stream down U.S. 1 with windshield signs declaring "Key West or Bust," the Florida Keys island chain continues to enjoy a healthy -- and profitable -- tourism season.
Crowds that flocked to the Keys for the New Year holiday kept coming throughout January and February, when average occupancy rates and hotel room prices, were, for the most part, higher than they were this time last year, according to data compiled and evaluated by county tourism officials.
The island chain as a whole showed "strong growth," said Jessica Bennett, director of market research for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, which tracks travel trends for the county,
January and February throughout the Keys brought higher occupancy rates and higher nightly room rates, Bennett reported.
In January, the Florida Keys averaged a 79 percent occupancy rate, up 5 percent from last year, according to the TDC figures. Also in January, people paid an average of $225 per night to stay in Keys lodging establishments, 7 percent more than in 2012.
"The Upper and Middle Keys made great strides in occupancy growth," Bennett said.
Islamorada's occupancy for January jumped 20 percent from 60 percent in 2012 to 73 percent this year. January was also good for Marathon, where occupancy increased from 62 to 69 percent.
February was also a strong month for visitors, although Bennett only had preliminary lodging figures available as of last week.
The TDC's weekly reports tracked visitors in February, but mostly those staying at larger, branded hotel chains, Bennett said, adding that the final numbers could change in the coming weeks when smaller, privately owner hotels and guest houses compile their figures.
Occupancy in the larger hotels throughout the Keys was at 89 percent in February, an increase of 4 percent over February 2012, while room rates increased to $256 per night, representing a 5 percent increase, Bennett reported.
Key West's large properties saw 95 percent occupancy in February, a 2 percent jump, while room rates increased by 7 percent to $279 per night.
The encouraging trend was not limited to the larger hotels for which data was available last week.
Elizabeth Ross, general manager of the Eden House on Fleming Street in Key West, reported increases for January and February when compared to 2012.
"And this month we are up even more over last year. I'd we're up at least 15 percent so far this month," Ross said, adding that there has been a significant change in the guest house's advance bookings. "Last year we had lots of last-minute bookings, and this year people are booking months out. We finally seem to be back on track from year ago."