Fort Myers News-Press
Published 11:55 AM EDT Oct 14, 2018
Devastating hurricanes, dead fish on the beaches and green slime in canals and rivers: Florida's No. 1 industry just can't catch a break.
First came Hurricane Irma, which clobbered the Florida Keys and parts of Lee and Collier counties last September.
Then came the toxic red tide and blue-green algae on both coasts.
Now Hurricane Michael – a near-Cat 5 storm that pounded Panama City and reduced Mexico Beach to rubble – is again testing the state’s tourism industry. Can it recover?
“I’m not sure if it’s because there have been more crises, but Visit Florida’s crisis response has stepped up,” said Nerissa Okiye, Martin County’s tourism marketing manager. “The industry comes together when things like hurricanes happen, so experienced people from around the state help each other.” Visit Florida is the state's public/private tourism promotion agency.
More: Column: I’ve lived through many hurricanes in Florida. Hurricane Michael was different.
Video: Hurricane Michael: A record-breaking storm
Michael tore the roofs of hotels, smashed homes and businesses, washed out roads and mangled trees and power lines in a vast northeasterly path through the Panhandle.
State tourism leaders are grieving with residents and businesses over the losses in human life and property. But they’re convinced the industry has the right stuff to rebound stronger than ever.
They’re promoting parts of the state that are in good shape for visitors, and offering state grants for promoting areas that have emerged from weather or environmental crises.
Also, individual counties are poised for their own marketing pushes, chipping in bed tax dollars for more marketing when all is well — and in some cases, for cleanup and repairs for public areas. The idea: lure visitors back soon, but not so soon they find dead fish on the beach.
“At the right time, we can let the country and the world know they can come back to those areas,” said Ken Lawson, CEO of Visit Florida.
More: Water quality crisis shrinks Lee County tourist tax revenues in July, August
Lawson, a fourth-generation Floridian and former Marine Corps captain, said he’s “sad for what my brothers and sisters have gone through,” and feels the “responsibility to send the right message, with the right tone, to help my state.”
Tourism and hospitality welcomed 118.5 million visitors in 2017. A recent Oxford Economics Research study said Florida visitors spent $112 billion here annually – and supported 1.4 million Florida jobs.
Visit Florida has a standing crisis team “that listens and reaches out to industry partners before and after a crisis,” Lawson said.
The agency budgets $1 million yearly for crisis response. After Irma, Lawson put together another $4 million in savings from various Visit Florida departments, to assist in post-hurricane marketing.
More: Lee County's tourism and hospitality super heroes take customer service seriously
He believes visitors make good choices when given accurate information. And, they understand that misfortune can temporarily sideline their favorite vacation getaways.
Take the United Kingdom, a key international market.
"The UK folks realize hurricanes are part of Florida's DNA. They're not forgetful; but they're aware, and make wise decisions."
For now, it’s important that international and out-of-state visitors know that “not all of Florida is impacted” by the hurricane or water quality issues, Lawson said.
For example, Hurricane Michael left Pensacola, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties relatively untouched: They’re tourist-ready.
The Florida Keys had a similar situation after Hurricane Irma roared through on Sept. 10, 2017.
More: Shortages of workers, inspectors and supplies hamper roof repairs post-Hurricane Irma
More: Irma's sheltering lessons: Go tens of miles, not hundreds
Many businesses and homes were heavily damaged or destroyed.
Still, Key West and Key Largo – major tourism players – sustained less storm damage than other islands in the chain, said Andy Newman, spokesman for Monroe County’s Florida Keys & Key West tourism promotion.
“Our biggest strength was getting our utilities and the basic infrastructure back as quickly as we did,” Newman said.
A number of properties, including Cheeca Lodge and Hawks Cay Resort, could have reopened sooner. Instead they delayed to execute renovation programs that had nothing to do with Irma but would better position them for future business.
It's been a long recovery. A couple of big resorts on Islamorada have yet to reopen. Still, “we’re in the neighborhood of having 91 to 92 percent of our properties back in action,” Newman said.
Newman, who’s handled Keys public relations for 38 years, recalls the “uphill climb” to restore visitor confidence after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead on the mainland, in 1992.
Although Andrew did not hit the Keys, an erroneous network TV report “left the perception the Keys were completely washed away,” Newman said, adding:
“I suspect the folks in northern Florida will be facing the same situation. You had horrible devastation in Mexico Beach and Panama City – and yet Pensacola probably is in pretty good shape.”
Two toxic troubles at the same time
In south Florida, red tide and blue-green algae have been tourism wreckers.
Red tide has lingered for a year, killing or sickening hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins – even a whale shark washed ashore on Sanibel, nationally known for its bounty of seashells.
Blue-green algae is harmful to humans and wildlife and killed and sickened pets that were exposed to it this year.
More: Algae-exposed? Researchers taking samples from people who've been around toxic blooms
More: Hurricane Michael may affect red tide and blue-green algae. Here's how.
The good news: cough-inducing red tide and toxic blue-green algae appear to be finally on the wane.
Convention and visitor bureaus, hotels and others are using their websites and social media channels to update potential visitors on where the coast is clear.
It’s no easy task because red tide moves around according to winds and waves.
Toxic blue-green algae, propelled by freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, has caused misery for counties to the west along the Caloosahatchee River and to the east in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
It's another blot on an area's reputation that gets picked up in news accounts.
That increases the chance tourists will think the problem is more widespread than it is,
“It’s a delicate balance,” said St. Lucie County Tourism Director Charlotte Bireley told the Treasure Coast Newspapers in July, echoing a sentiment mentioned frequently among those involved in Treasure Coast tourism.
“We need to raise awareness at the state level of our water-quality issues. On the other side, we don’t want to create a perception that we’re closed for business,” Bireley said.
More: County sees blue-green algae dissipating, changes cleanup strategy
More: Dead manatees pose big challenge for red tide-choked shorelines, as wildlife agency tries to keep pace
Okiye, the Martin County tourism manager, said lessons learned from recent years of overcoming hurricanes, algae and red tide, Zika, the Pulse nightclub massacre and other things have helped various tourism officials from around the state work more closely with Visit Florida to help them learn when to go back to marketing.
She said Visit Florida is doing a better job of tracking consumer intent after Irma, red tide and algae.
Okiye and Bireley in St. Lucie County agreed that transparency is important so people can make informed decisions and not get into situations where they might be disappointed. Potential visitors can get frequently updated information on conditions from hotels and visitor bureaus and view beach cams.
St. Lucie County “luckily has not had any beach closures or water quality issues,” Bireley said. “We will continue to market our water activities as they stay safe and open.”
One hit after another on the Gulf coast
Southwest Florida tourism hadn't completely recovered from Hurricane Irma when red tide arrived last October – and then intensified this summer, when blue-green algae started churning out in Lake Okeechobee freshwater discharges.
Collier County hasn't had blue-green algae, but has had recurring bouts of red tide. In Naples, Collier County commissioners on Tuesday approved a strategy for luring visitors back once red tide blooms dissipate.
More: Collier County approves $250,000 campaign to lure visitors back after red tide
More: Response to red tide: Collier plans tourism marketing for when coast is clear
It means millions in lost revenue.
In Lee and Collier counties alone, tourism is a $4.5 billion-a-year-industry that supports one in five jobs.
Collier will tap up to $250,000 from its emergency tourism advertising fund for a campaign that will have a “Return to Paradise” theme and include ads on travel websites, with news outlets and on social media platforms.
The county will launch the campaign in stages depending on the presence or absence of red tide, said Collier tourism chief Jack Wert, in an email.
"We are currently focusing our advertising on our inland activities,” Wert said.
Collier County has also applied for two grants from Visit Florida to boost advertising to help assure visitors that the coast is clear locally and regionally when the time is right.
In August, Lee County’s Tourist Development Council endorsed spending $1 million in tourist tax reserves for a marketing campaign that will kick off once the coast is clear.
Lee’s tourism bureau also has been awarded a $77,500 Visit Florida grant, which it will use on New York Times social and digital media after the red tide subsides.
More: Business surveys show economic punch of algal blooms
More: Lee tourism council endorses spending bed tax dollars on algae emergency
Asked at a tourism meeting Thursday when the emergency advertising might launch, Pigott said there’s a plan that’s been modified a few times, “but you can’t buy the placement until you’re really ready."
She added, “We need a little bit of assurance that (red tide) isn’t washing back on shore in the middle of our campaign saying things are great again.”
Visitor numbers took a hit in August, when both Collier and Lee had red tide troubles.
Lee County doesn’t estimate visitor numbers by the month. However, it charges a 5 percent bed tax on short-term lodgings rentals. That tax sustained a 16.4 percent, year-over-year decline in its August — a reflection of the water quality crisis that deepened that month and dogged the region all summer and into fall.
Collier County had 102,800 visitors staying in its hotels and other commercial lodgings in August, down 4.2 percent from last year, according to a report by Tampa-based consultant Research Data Services Inc.
Visitor spending topped $89 million, but was down 1.5 percent from the same month last year. Room nights booked for August declined 3.2 percent over the year, falling to 143,600.
September statistics for either county weren’t yet available.
Wert believes tourism in Southwest Florida and statewide will rebound in the new year.
"Overall we know that Florida tourism is resilient,” Wert said.
More: 'I just want them to get him out,' says wife of Florida man killed during Hurricane Michael
More: Hurricane Michael falls short of a Category 5 – by just 2 mph
That optimism was echoed by Rusty and Pam Burrows, who have an inland home near Mexico Beach that weathered Hurricane Michael.
News and social media accounts of the destruction won’t inhibit tourists in the long run, the couple said.
“Nothing will stop them,” Rusty Burrows said.
And that’s OK with this native Floridian.
“We want them to come down,” Rusty Burrows said. “We welcome them.”
USA TODAY Florida Network reporters Michael Braun, Laura Layden and Paul Ivice contributed to this report.