Then came the toxic red tide and blue-green algae on both coasts.
“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.
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.
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.”
A lot’s at stake.
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.
Take the United Kingdom, a key international market.
More: Irma’s sheltering lessons: Go tens of miles, not hundr
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.
Although Andrew did not hit the Keys, an erroneous network TV report “left the perception the Keys were completely washed away,” Newman said, adding:
Two toxic troubles at the same time
Red tide has lingered for a year, killing or sickening hundr 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
The good news: cough-inducing red tide and toxic blue-green algae appear to be finally on the wane.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It means millions in lost revenue.
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.
“We are currently focusing our advertising on our inland activities,” Wert said.
More: Business surveys show economic punch of algal blooms
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.
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.”