Southwest Florida's tourism industry hurting from Hurricane Irma
A handful of Naples residents get in a final trip to the beach before hurricane Irma starts to impact the southwest Florida coast.
The tourism industry took a beating from Hurricane Irma in Southwest Florida.
In the Naples area many hotels, attractions and restaurants won't reopen for weeks. There's cleanup to do and repairs to make — and many are still waiting for power to be restored.
Most tourism-related enterprises hope to be back in business by Oct. 1, if not sooner, in Collier County. The hurricane has left some in such a big mess that they're closed indefinitely, such as the Naples Zoo.
Captain Harry Julian, an owner of Pure Florida, hopes to bounce back sooner, though Irma blew away its dock at Tin City in downtown Naples.
"We have no dock to operate from right now," he said. "Obviously it doesn't matter about the condition of the boats — if you don't have a dock, you don't have a dock."
He's also dealing with damaged boats, but he said he might be up and operational in Naples by next week using an alternative dock and a boat that's usually stationed in Fort Myers, which was untouched by Irma and sits idle there in September anyway. "Stay tuned," he said.
On the bright side, September is one of the slowest months for tourism in the county — and the region.
In Pure's fleet the Double Sunshine, a popular sightseeing boat, is the worst off with damage to the hull that will take a few weeks to fix. The Lady Brett and Kudu fishing vessels need smaller repairs that will only take a few days to complete.
The storm also flooded Pure's office, filling it with 2.5 feet of water. While the business is down, crews are taking time to do other maintenance on the boats to "make the best of it," including giving them fresh paint, Julian said.
"It's going to be a big hit to us," he said. "Hopefully, we will recover and come back stronger. For now it is just doing the best you can to manage the cash flow."
This is a slower time of year, but the business still has 35 employees to support.
"There's a difference between being slow and being shut down," Julian said. "It hurts employees. It hurts everyone."
Many other businesses took a hit at Tin City, an old commercial fishing complex on the Gordon River that has been converted into shops and restaurants. Pinchers Crab Shack will remain closed for an extended period, with owners Phelan Family Brands deciding to make larger improvements and to undertake a renovation due to damage caused by Irma.
“Our family has been through hurricanes, fires and even battled cancer. We have overcome adversity and challenges before and are part of a great family of team members and community members who are already working hard to get our Tin City location back to offering up one of the finest waterfront dining experiences in Naples," said Grant Phelan, owner of Phelan Family Brands, in a statement.
Hotels in Collier County have been slow to reopen since Irma. They've faced many challenges including no power or phone service and contaminated water, as well as having to deal with their own damage.
"We've lost a lot of business, and other companies that work with the hotels, restaurants, attractions, anybody that derives business from visitors, have taken
a pretty big hit for September," said Randy Smith, president of the Collier County Lodging & Tourism Alliance.
Smith, who owns Naples Transportation, Tours & Event Planning, said the destination hasn't just lost individual visitors but group businesses that have canceled their plans.
"It has been pretty hard on everybody," he said. "Everybody is trying to put their employees back to work as much as possible, which absorbs even more losses for the companies, but in the long run it is the right thing to do."
In Lee and Collier counties many hotel rooms are still filled with Irma evacuees, first responders, utility workers or other hurricane disaster helpers. So some hotels don't have room for tourists.
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 31 — of about 100 — hotels in Collier County were taking reservations, but as rooms become available to the public again, they're filling fast.
Several hotels and attractions in the Naples area have targeted Oct. 1 as a reopening date, including both Ritz-Carlton hotels and the Naples Botanical Gardens. Others expect to be up and running before then such as the Hilton Naples, slated to open Thursday, and the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, scheduled to resume operations Monday.
The waterfront Naples Grande Beach Resort in North Naples is still assessing its damages and will remain closed "until further notice." Pre-existing reservations, through Sept. 30, have been canceled and any deposits will be refunded in full.
For a few properties in the harder hit areas, such as Marco Island and Everglades City, it could take much longer to recover.
When the tourism industry has bounced back in a few weeks, Smith said, he hopes to see the county tap tourist tax dollars for a special marketing campaign to let the world know the area is back in business and "as beautiful as ever" — and not as devastated as outsiders might think. The county collects a 5 percent tax on all short-term vacation stays, with part of the money reserved for destination marketing and money set aside for emergencies such as this.
"The area will rebuild better than before," Smith said. "We'll get there. I think Naples has that entrepreneurial spirit, 'Hey, it knocked us down, but we'll get up and be
better than before.'"
Destination marketing was suspended in Lee and Collier counties before Irma.
In Collier, messaging will resume through social media by Monday to share information about the status of hotels and what's expected with the recovery efforts, said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. He said he's not sure whether a special campaign will be needed to bring visitors back.
"We do have some paid media we could launch, but I'm not ready to do that yet," Wert said. "I really want to see what happens this week."
The storm, he noted, will be one of the costlier ones to the industry and the community because of the time it has taken to restore power and to remove the mess it left behind.
Based on initial estimates, 40 to 50 feet of the width of the beach has been lost from north to south in Collier, as well as some of the dunes and their vegetation, Wert said.
The beaches should be much cleaner and available for people to use this weekend as long as they are deemed safe. Water testing is underway.
"There is still sand on the beach," Wert said. "That is the good news, just not as much of it."
Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, resumed its digital advertising Tuesday using its pre-storm islandology messaging, focused on genuine experiences in a natural destination.
In Lee attractions, such as "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Edison Ford Estates, will reopen in phases. As for hotels, most have reported minimal damage, and the majority that are still dark are prepared to open within 48 hours of getting power, Pigott said.
Irma's impact on the county's lifeblood tourism industry, she said, is difficult to measure.
"Certainly evacuating our coastal communities, those are days of lost business
for those properties, then some days lost without power no doubt will have an impact for each one," PIgott said. "Putting a dollar amount to it at this point would
be a real challenge."
Like her counterpart in Collier, Pigott isn't sure if Lee County will need to launch an emergency advertising campaign to make sure visitors return.
"We're kind of in the process of listening and seeing what consumers are talking about," she said. "You know the news cycle changes very quickly."