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Hermine dampens Florida tourism on holiday weekend

Sunday, September 4, 2016, 7:28 - Before it even made landfall on Thursday, Hurricane Hermine had battered Florida's $89-billion tourism industry, snarling travel, cancelling a country music festival and scaring visitors away at the start of the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend.

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, closing schools and government offices throughout much of the state as the storm barreled toward its northern Gulf Coast, including the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The hazardous weather is the latest blow to the state's tourism industry, weeks after Florida confirmed cases of the Zika virus on both coasts, which dented travel to the region from expectant mothers and others.

Just one pair of guests were sticking out the storm at St. Petersburg's Beach Drive Inn, ahead of the weekend the marks the unofficial end of summer vacations, said innkeeper Jana Kelly.

"We've had a couple cancellations and a couple rooms leave early. It's not great news, especially when it's a slower time of the year," she said, noting bookings typically pick up for the six-room bed-and-breakfast in October.

At the western end of Florida's Gulf Coast, Pensacola's Margaritaville Beach Hotel was about 85 percent full at a time it would normally be sold out, said Jennifer Jackson, the hotel's director of marketing.

"We have seen some cancellations, but not everyone is bailing," said Jackson.

She said the hotel, in an area expected to dodge the worst of the storm, had picked up some last-minute reservations from travelers who were cancelling vacations to cities including Panama City Beach, where organizers of the Gulf Coast Jam country-music festival had just pulled the plug on the three-day event due to begin Friday.

"Safety is the first concern for our visitors, country music fans and the festival organizers and sponsors," said Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas in a post on the organizers' Facebook page.

One in 10 flights into Tallahassee International Airport had been canceled as of Thursday afternoon, according to Major airlines including American Airlines <AAL.O> and United Airlines offered fee waivers to travelers heading to or from airports in Florida as well as elsewhere in the southeastern United States.

Hotels in Tampa also saw cancellations, with some offering special discounts to travelers marooned by the storm, said Cristina Duschek, spokesperson for the Visit Tampa Bay tourism board.

"The upside is that some people are staying longer in town to get through the storm," Duschek said in a phone interview.

British student Domenico Zappala was ready to cool his heels in Miami International Airport waiting for a flight home to London.

"If it gets canceled or delayed, I'll just stick at the airport," Zappala said in an electronic message.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice in New York; additional reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)

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