Long Island's multibillion-dollar tourism industry is starting to get its groove back.
As the summer vacation season gets under way next weekend, beaches, wineries, hotels, restaurants and outlet centers appear primed to maintain their slow recovery from the recession.
"We're seeing improvements -- it's gradual and constant," said R. Moke McGowan, president of the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. "And barring anything major unforeseen, I think there's optimism as we continue to move forward."
That optimism is on display as vacation spots gear up around Nassau and Suffolk -- including the renamed Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center in Riverhead, which planned to add 20 fruit bats, two porcupines and a sloth to its outdoor exhibit by next weekend.
The Island's leisure businesses generated $5.1 billion in revenues in 2008. Revenues fell by 13 percent in 2009, according to private studies for state tourism officials. The numbers recovered somewhat in 2010, to $4.6 billion, and probably increased again last year (data aren't available yet), but no one is predicting a return to $5 billion this year.
"I think we'll need another year of job growth before we can get back to that figure," said economist Pearl Kamer of the Long Island Association.
Leisure and hospitality-related businesses employed almost 116,800 Long Islanders in July 2011, according to the state Department of Labor, more than the pre-recession total and well above the recent low point of 110,600 in July 2009. Kamer and McGowan attributed that growth to new restaurants -- especially those aimed at budget-minded families -- and to at least three new hotels that have opened since 2009.
Hardest hit in '09, McGowan said, were elements of the industry that depended most heavily on business travelers with expense accounts -- hotels in Nassau and western Suffolk and upscale restaurants, for example. "That's been the slowest to come back," he said.
The Island's hotel-room occupancy rates stood at just under 56 percent in this year's first quarter, McGowan said, up from 54.3 percent in the first quarter of '09 but well short of the 61.2 percent recorded in the first three months of '08.
Dave Ceva, co-owner of the 69-room Sole East, a hotel in Montauk, said his business was hardly touched by the recession. A weaker dollar encouraged many Americans to vacation at home. This year, he said, "Bookings are ahead of where we were last year."
Regional state parks director George Gorman said weather is the biggest determinant of crowds at Jones Beach, Robert Moses and the other facilities he oversees; cool temperatures and rain keep people home, and very hot weather will also limit the crowds, as many opt to stay in their air-conditioned homes. Last year's attendance, he said, wasn't particularly strong in August, when it was hurt by Tropical Storm Irene.
Weather and fluctuating gasoline prices might help explain why state transportation department figures show fluctuating traffic counts each July since 2007 at a key waypoint for Jones Beach- and Robert Moses-bound traffic: the Southern State Parkway at Merrick Avenue in North Merrick, near the Meadowbrook and Wantagh state parkways. Counts fell in '08 and '09 to about 171,000, rose in 2010 to about 178,000, then fell last year by about 3,000.
Ron Goerler, president of the Long Island Wine Council, said the 52 wine producers on the North and South Forks are once again expecting tens of thousands of visitors this summer -- weather providing. "Our season started early because of the mild weather in April," said Goerler, co-owner of Jamesport Vineyards.
Falling gasoline prices should help; the Long Island average for regular slipped below $4 a gallon over last weekend, amid predictions for stable prices through the summer. Co-owner Myron Goldstein of the Eastern Long Island Kamp Ground Inc., in Greenport, said his 186 sites are fully booked for next weekend and heavily booked for the summer.
At the Montauk Yacht Club, with 103 rooms and more than 200 boat slips, sales director Pam Assogna said business was strong right through the recession. "We're sold out every weekend in May," she added. "We're booming."
David Loewenberg said the five restaurants he owns or co-owns on the South Fork had a strong summer last year and he is adding a location this season -- The Bell & Anchor in Sag Harbor. Even affluent Hamptons clientele are more careful with their dollars now, he said, but added, "I do expect this to be a very strong summer."