ANNAPOLIS – Thanksgiving travelers and shoppers should give a lift to Ocean City’s economy in an otherwise slow tourism off-season, a city official said.
“For an off-season weekend, it’s usually a good weekend for us,” said Ocean City spokeswoman Donna Abbott. “It’s definitely a more relaxed pace than during the peak season.”
Although Ocean City — which sits on 10 miles of sandy beach on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — has gradually become a permanent, year-round community, most know it as a prime tourist destination.
The peak resort season for the city extends from May to the middle of September, when the weather is warm, said Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Deborah Travers. The number of visitors drops sharply with the thermostat — but they don’t disappear completely.
Although some smaller hotels are closed for the season, most of the larger hotels and resorts will stay open, Travers said. The city expects as many as 100,000 visitors to pass through during the Thanksgiving weekend — and with them several hundred thousands of dollars in business and tax revenue. Some hotels have reduced holiday-weekend rates to attract customers.
Roughly 8 million people visit Ocean City each year, and help generate an $800 million annual economy, she said.
The city expects much of the weekend revenue surge to come from the 22nd annual Holiday Shopper’s Fair.
The fair will be held Friday through Sunday in the Convention Center, with 200 vendors — local and national — and a food court, said fair spokeswoman Janice Cropper. There will even be a lounge where shopping-hating spouses can sit and watch football, she said.
“We get about 15,000 people in here for the three days,” Cropper said. “The halls are so crowded you can hardly walk for all the people.”
The fair began in part as a way for locals to do their holiday shopping without having to drive over an hour to get to a larger city, Travers said. However, as the town grew in population, more businesses were drawn to the area, and now the fair is an annual tradition.
“It started as a way to give a boost to the season, and it’s proven to be quite popular over the years,” Abbott said.
Another part of the city’s allure will be the same strategy many major businesses use to convince shoppers to open their wallets on Thanksgiving — sell them Christmas. The town and local businesses plan a number of Christmas-themed events, including the Winterfest of Lights.
“The focus of the holiday season for the town is always on the Winterfest,” Travers said.
The 12th annual Winterfest will be open through Jan. 2, and has “thousands of twinkling, glittering lights covering animated and stationary displays,” according to the city Web site. Visitors can ride the Winterfest Express train to see the display.
More than 85,000 people rode trains to see the light displays in 2003, a 9 percent increase from the year before, said Abbott. She said the town hopes for even more riders this year.
Most of all, city officials and workers say the winter festivities give visitors a chance to see what else Ocean City has to offer. Over the years the city has changed from a simple beach destination to a place where more and more people are settling down to live year-round, Travers said.
“A lot of people . . . think of us as a beach town, but the surrounding areas are rich in culture and shopping,” Travers said. “There’s a lot more to do here than just the beach.”