Marine tourism reeling it in


By Emily Roach

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

— Have fun, fish, win money, in that order. Team Rock Star owners Jorge Piedra, Henry Jimenez and Jerry Fernandez are competing in the Sailfish Open this week and indulging on the water and off.

Tourists like the Miami friends, who were sitting around the Singer Island Hilton pool bar Thursday after tournament registration, spend thousands on their marine-based entertainment and thousands more on hotels, restaurants and evening diversions.

“We do it to have a great time,” Jimenez said.

But it’s not cheap. Piedra said the team will spend $35,000 easily on the costs to run the boat and feed and house the crew.

Roger Amidon, executive director of the Palm Beach County Tourist Development Board, said the tournament adds heads in hotel beds. The county’s Sports Commission predicts a $1.5 million boost to the economy and about 1,500 room nights at hotels.

“Obviously, it’s bringing an audience here to Palm Beach County that fits the target we’re trying to get,” Amidon said.

Saltwater fishing is a $5.2 billion industry in Florida, supporting more than 51,000 jobs, according to Visit Florida, the state’s marketing enterprise. The Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County found in an economic impact study about five years ago that marine retail business brought $270 million annually to the county economy and service for boats added $487 million.

Marine tourism is a luxury niche of the tourism market, and one on which the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau is putting a new emphasis. The county’s marketing agency is working with marine businesses to lure more boaters, fishermen, divers, and water-based sightseers to area waters from the Atlantic to Lake Okeechobee.

This time of year the Gulf Stream brings sailfish through the area and sailfish tournaments to the economy. This week’s Sailfish Open is here for the first year with about 60 boats of seven or eight crew members each. Total prizes are about $250,000, and teams can spend as much as $100,000 over a week or 10 days to try and hook the payoff, tournament director Capt. Mike Weinhofer said.

Fishing and the great water access, both saltwater and freshwater, have been bringing tourists to the county for decades, said Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

The club recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Silver Sailfish Derby, created during the Great Depression to spur fishermen to visit and spend money. And it had a record number of sailfish catches (and releases), which the fishermen here this week had definitely heard about.

“Nowhere along the entire eastern seaboard does the Gulf Stream come closer to shore,” Twyford said. “From a fishing standpoint that brings a lot of really sought-after game fish to our doorstep.”

Even without a tournament, and there are two being held locally this weekend, people who come to fish spend a lot of money. Chartering a boat for the day can cost $1,000.

Visitors do more than fish on the water.

Shana Phelan of the Palm Beach County Diving Association said the Gulf Stream also is a benefit to divers, who get below the waves to see the marine life. Some load up the tanks and fins and rent a boat for a couple of days while visiting the area, and some devote all of their waking hours to the sport.

She and husband Dean Shuler, a dive association board member, run Pura Vida Divers in Palm Beach Gardens.

“Visitors definitely see a value in it, and they will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on it on a single trip,” Phelan said.

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