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Bouncing back from storms, Gulf beach business on the upswing

At Bahama Bob’s Beach Side Cafe, every table, inside and out, was filled with lunchtime diners Monday. Cars spilled out from the packed parking lot onto Alabama 182, employees hustled to fill orders and even all the barstools were occupied.

“This is quiet compared to how the weekend’s been,” manager Teresa Giovannangeli said. “We’ve broken all types of records.”

The midday scene at the Gulf-front eatery was a stark contrast to what was seen last year when Bahama Bob’s had seen so few tourists that the owner could remember each out-of-towner that had visited that day and recalled for a reporter where each came from. At that time, the holiday weekend arrived fresh on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, curfews were still in effect, roads were blocked with sand drifts and fears of a gasoline shortage scared tourists away.

After two summers of storm-driven disruption to the tourism trade, officials said at the outset of this summer that it was their goal to bring business back to levels seen prior to 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

Based on his examination of monthly sales and lodgings tax numbers for the first part of the season and estimates of what August and September figures will be like, Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau president Herb Malone said that it appears tourism business returned to 90 percent of what it was before Ivan wrecked the beaches.

“I’m very satisfied that we’ve gotten within 10 percent,” Malone said. “Overall that gives us an A-minus.”

Malone said that this holiday weekend — traditionally a strong closing to the summer season — was particularly encouraging because Labor Day business had been slipping over the last several years due to increasingly early school start dates.

This past weekend, Malone said, seemed to buck that trend with hotels and condos at or near capacity, retailers reporting strong sales and restaurateurs claiming some of the best days in their history.

Before the weekend, some of the large local vacation rental firms reported reservation rates ranging from 80 to 100 percent.

On Monday, at the 119-room Holiday Inn Express in Orange Beach, front desk manager Peter Schenck said that although there was a high turnover rate for guests, no room spent a night unslept in.

“It’s been full the entire weekend,” Schenck said.

Gulf Shores City Councilman Steve Jones said that one restaurant owner had just called to tell him how busy he was this weekend.

“The business owners are reporting excellent numbers for the summer and Labor Day is no exception,” Jones said.

In Orange Beach, Mayor Pete Blalock said his seafood and specialty food shops were deluged with customers beginning early Friday.

“It’s been a great summer,” Blalock said. “Anybody that didn’t have a good year — it’s their own fault.”

Throughout Monday a steady procession of out-of-state and upstate plates, pickups pulling campers and kayak-topped cars flowed north from the beach Alabama 59 and the Foley Beach Express. Despite the exodus, beach access spots from Little Lagoon Pass in western Gulf Shores to Perdido Pass near the Florida state line were packed with parking spots hard to come by.

At the Gulf State Park’s new 10,000-square-foot beach pavilion, which opened earlier this summer, University of South Alabama doctors took advantage of the crowds to launch a series of free skin cancer screenings called “SPF 90,” or Sun Protection Force 90, a name meant to invoke the fact that 90 percent of skin cancer is curable if detected early.

In all, about 15 doctors and volunteers with medical backgrounds set up camp under the shade of the pavilion’s curved roof and spent five hours screening about 250 people ranging in age from elementary school students to the elderly, said Paul Taylor, spokesman for USA’s College of Medicine said.

The deadliest form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, was detected on three individuals, all of whom were scheduled for biopsies in the coming days, Taylor said.

Dr. Adam Riker, who has recently been named chief of surgical oncology at USA’s Mitchell Cancer Institute and who helped organize the event, guessed that half of those on the crowded beach in front of him were not wearing any sunblock.

Riker said he hopes to hold three or four similar screenings in Alabama annually beginning next year to spread the word about skin cancer.

“This is more than I expected turnout-wise,” Riker said. “This has been a good effort as far as getting the word out about skin cancer screening.”