GALVESTON — Despite being splattered by oil then smothered in seaweed, the island continues to be a hot destination for vacationers this tourism season.
Economic indicators, including hotel occupancy and revenues, are even showing increases compared to last year. The real question is: Will tourists who encountered stinky piles of seaweed return next year?
To ensure they do, businesses and tourism officials are aggressively working damage control, ramping up education efforts about seaweed, directing visitors to non-beach attractions and sometimes tossing in a bottle of wine or other perks in hopes guests don’t leave with bad memories of their Galveston vacation.
Pump the perks
“We want guests to return,” said Claire Reiswerg of Sand ’N Sea Properties, which handles thousands of West End vacation rentals. “We don’t want them to have a bad time while they’re vacationing here.”
About 60 percent of Sand ’N Sea’s guests are repeat customers, many staying in the same property year after year, Reiswerg said. Of more than 3,000 vacation rentals the firm handles each year, about nine have canceled because of the massive amounts of seaweed that invaded the island.
“We have cancellations each summer,” Reiswerg said. “People cancel for the usual reasons — unexpected work changes, illness, etc. This is the first year we’ve had people stating ‘seaweed’ as the reason.”
Sand ’N Sea associates have always offered gift baskets or some other perk when something went wrong at a house. They’ve given more gift baskets and bottles of wine than usual this season. If someone is very upset about seaweed, they might raise the offer to a free fall weekend in the same vacation house.
Embrace the weed
Max Wilson, president of John’s Beach Service, which rents umbrellas and chairs at Stewart Beach, isn’t offering gifts, but he is trying to ensure visitors have a good time, while learning a little about the seaweed.
Wilson, who has operated the concession for 45 years, figures that if one visitor has a bad experience at least 30 potential visitors will hear about it.
“Word-of-mouth is better than a $10,000 billboard or $100,000 radio ad,” Wilson said. “If you please them and satisfy them, they’ll tell people to come to Galveston, that they had a good experience.”
Some visitors have never seen seaweed before, Wilson said.
“Some of them walk through it like it’s going to burn their feet,” he said.
The seaweed has been an inconvenience and has caused a slight dip in business, Wilson said. But it’s nature, he said.
He encourages the visitors to embrace it.
“The kids love playing in it,” Wilson said. “I try to turn a negative into a positive.”
Island tourism reached an all-time high last year as overnight visitors and day-trippers arrived in numbers larger than ever and spent more money. Officials had every reason to expect a huge 2014 summer. Then came the March 22 oil spill that dumped about 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel into Galveston Bay. Widespread reports of the spill and oil washed up on island beaches threatened to keep visitors away. The spill was quickly contained. But soon after, an influx of seasonal seaweed began arriving and didn’t stop, confounding researchers who say they haven’t seen such an influx in decades.
In a way, the oil spill helped position the island to increase promotions of non-beach attractions, Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Leah Cast said.
“After the oil spill, we put more money into advertising on radio and TV in the Houston and Austin markets,” Cast said. “We went into the summer knowing we had to pump up promotions because nature was not cooperating.”
The promotions have continued.
More than a beach
And the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees, which oversees official tourism efforts, is working to reinforce the message that the beach is only one aspect of an island vacation, Cast said. There’s Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, downtown shopping and dining and plenty to do at Pier 21 and on the harbor, Cast said.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau, a division of the Park Board, has worked in recent years to educate the public about the benefits of sargassum, such as its contributions to erosion prevention and its function as a habitat. Island hotels have brochures on sargassum, and there’s educational signage on the seawall.
The Park Board also has distributed seaweed bracelets to businesses and to visitors with the message: “Seaweed saves Galveston’s beaches.”
The bracelets have been popular with guests, Reiswerg said.
Not just Galveston
The Park Board has also passed out cards to businesses and signs for hotels and rental services to post in their offices, and sponsored “Bucket Brigades” led by volunteers who encourage beachgoers to explore the marine life in seaweed.
Instead of removing seaweed, Park Board crews push it away from the shoreline to create paths for beachgoers and allow the sargassum to decompose naturally. In some places, seaweed is piled several feet high. And the Park Board can’t remove some seaweed because equipment would get stuck in the muck.
On its website, the park board is suggesting visitors try East Beach and Stewart Beach, which are regularly maintained. And officials are directing potential visitors to check out live webcams, such as www.galvestonbeachin fo.com, to view beaches before traveling here.
Cast also points out that seaweed is affecting the entire Gulf Coast.
“In fact, we’ve been so proactive, other Gulf Coast destinations have called us asking for advice and about our signage,” Cast said.
Decomposition of seaweed and marine life in it releases an unpleasant, if not foul, odor, which has not gone unnoticed. At Coastal Dreams Bed & Breakfast, guests have mentioned it, owner Lana Lander said.
“It’s something said in passing — ‘Yeah, it really stinks down there,’” Lander, who recently had a cancellation because of seaweed, said.
June was strong and weekends still are, but midweek bookings are down 15 percent in July compared to the same period a year ago, Lander said. She attributes the decline to seaweed.
To entice guests, Lander is offering a free third night for midweek bookings.
She also is encouraging guests to visit The Strand in the island’s downtown among other attractions.
“There’s always something going on down there,” Lander said.
Not too shabby
It’s too early to know how badly the seaweed invasion is affecting tourism and the economy that depends on it, Cast said.
But seaweed didn’t hurt June hotel occupancy and revenue. From June 1-28, revenue rose 14.4 percent at full-service hotels and 10.1 percent at limited service hotels. Total revenue was $15.9 million, compared with $14.1 million the same period a year ago. Total occupancy was 79.5 percent, compared with 77.5 percent a year ago.
“For July, we are pacing ahead,” Cast said.
Month-to-date revenue for July for the island’s hotels is $8.3 million compared with $7.5 million a year ago.
And so far, next year isn’t looking too shabby for vacation home rentals, at least not for Sand ’N Sea.
“Our 2015 advance reservations, most of which are made when people check out, are normal — no drop in the number of advanced reservations for next year,” Reiswerg said.