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Texas beaches juggle wide variety of visitors

By Helen Anders
Cox Newspapers

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SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas As motorcycles roared onto the island for a biker rally on a recent fall weekend, a retired couple muttered over their fried shrimp at Blackbeards’.

”Oh, they’re no trouble,” Zeke Garrett, the restaurant’s manager, said of the bikers. ”They’re just loud.”

Bikers and retirees are but two ingredients in the gumbo of Texas coast visitors that also includes college spring breakers, surfers, anglers, families and cooler-laden day-trippers. It’s a potentially explosive recipe. Retirees sometimes carp about the thundering hogs, families shriek about drunk students, and local day-trippers get exasperated looking for parking spaces.

So, whose beach is it, anyway?

According to the Texas Open Beaches Act, it’s everybody’s, so local tourism officials in South Padre, Galveston, Corpus Christi, Port Aransas and other beaches do their best to keep everybody happy.

South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Lacey Ekberg says her staff focuses on safety and security during large events but that the various tourist groups ”seem to all get along.” For the most part, that’s true, although the more people there are on the island – spring break’s Texas Week (the week of March 11 in 2013) is the most body-intensive – the more things can get a tad testy.

Restaurants and bars do their best to be all things to all people. That means cordoning off hog parking when the bikers are in town, creating early bird dinner specials for retired Winter Texans, and launching happy hour deals for spring breakers and kids-eat-free deals for families.

Most problematic are the needs of day-trippers, because the reality is that they, while arguably most entitled to enjoy the beach because they chose to live close to it, are also the most labor-intensive visitors and spend the least money. Day-trippers often bring their own food and drink, and they’re responsible for a good bit of the trash left on the sand. They don’t put heads in beds.

Tourism officials have traditionally given little thought to this large segment of tourists, but now Galveston and South Padre are both working on ways to manage and leverage these crowds.

This spring, Galveston is planning to install signs at major pedestrian intersections along the Sea Wall pointing the way to attractions such as Moody Gardens and the Strand.

”We find our day-trippers tend to come to Galveston to hang out on the beach without looking into the many options Galveston offers,” public relations manager Leah Cast says. ”We are hoping this signage will help encourage visitors to move around and spend time and money at our attractions and restaurants.”

Beach-side parking

One issue that both Galveston and South Padre have started wrangling this year is parking near the beach, a key issue for day-trippers and, to a lesser extent (because many hotels are walkable to the water), out-of-towners.

In the spring, Galveston is preparing to charge $1 an hour for parking along the Sea Wall. It’s always been hard to find a space, but competition intensified when the Galveston Pleasure Pier opened at Sea Wall Boulevard and 25th Street. The city hopes the parking fee creates some space turnover. Annual passes will be available for $25, and day-trippers are likely to buy those.

South Padre Island has struggled with its own parking situation. A few years ago it decided to ban parking on residential streets in summer and during March spring break. That left Gulf Boulevard, the beachfront road, to provide parking for day-trippers. South Padre is now considering charging for parking on Gulf Boulevard amid accusations that doing so would be hostile to day-trippers.

The situation still isn’t settled and probably won’t be for a while. Ekberg, who arrived last summer in the midst of the discussion, says she isn’t sure charging for parking is a good idea.

South Padre has, however, started to tackle the problem of beach-goers and trash with a program during high-traffic months designed to get people to clean up the beach instead of trash it. At certain county-owned beach access points, beach-goers are charged $5 and given a trash bag. If they return the bag full of trash, they get their $5 back.

The garbage plan doesn’t apply islandwide, but on those beaches where it’s used, it seems to be successful. The various types of visitors can argue about parking, drinking and noise, but everybody’s in favor of a clean beach.

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