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All (dollar) signs point to winter tourist season finishing strong

STORY BY JON PINE (Week of April 18, 2024)

For Vero Beach’s barrier island, the 2024 winter tourist season appears to be finishing strong, according to local hoteliers and restaurateurs.

A couple of early spring storms in late March and early April dumped up to a foot of snow across the Great Lakes region. For the sunny 32963 zip code, that meant packed restaurants and hotels, and beaches buzzing with sun worshipers, as the average daily temperatures hovered in the mid- to high-70s.

“This year has been, by far, my busiest season in 14 years,” said Scott Varricchio, the owner and chef at Citrus restaurant on Easter Lily Lane. “Spring break is pretty much over right now, but our season usually lasts through Mother’s Day. So, we have a lot of people still here because the weather is nasty up north.”

Heading up Ocean Drive, Lee Olsen, general manager of the Driftwood Resort and Waldo’s Restaurant, said room rentals were “down a little bit, but the timeshare usage is up.

“Some of these owners have been owners for decades and it’s sort of like their retirement home,” he said. “This year we’ve been seeing the next generations – their children and grandchildren – coming. It’s a different kind of vibe, more like a summertime crowd with lots of children and families.”

Business also has been steadily improving across the street from Waldo’s at the Lemon Tree restaurant, according to general manager Julie Weber.

“We’re seeing a lot of larger parties coming in – you know, like parties of eight, parties of 12,” she said.  “So that’s something new that we’re not really used to. And there’s no sign of slowing down.”

The business at Maison Martinique, The Creperie at Maison Martinique, and Havana Nights Piano Bar at the Caribbean Court Boutique Resort was “very sluggish” in January and February, said Colleen Carr, who owns the three entities along with her partner, chef Daniel Wise. “But March has been fantastic, and April looks to be pretty great for us, as well.”

Official data about this tourist season lags a month or so behind, said Ben Earman, director of tourism and marketing for the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, but so far 2024 is looking pretty good.

While the collected tourist taxes are down about 11 percent from last year, that figure only includes data through January, Earman said.

“I expect March’s taxes to be higher and to do very well,” Earman said. “The trend I’ve been seeing is that beach travel will take off.”