Thanksgiving won't be the same for Southwest Florida's tourism industry this year

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Hoteliers in Southwest Florida could use a crystal ball right now.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend looks uncertain for the region's tourism industry.

What appears certain is there'll be fewer visitors than last year in Lee and Collier counties, due to fears about the spread of the virus — and to the hard economic times that have fallen on so many Americans because of COVID-19.

“Due to the pandemic it is very likely that we will see fewer travelers," said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended that Americans not travel for Thanksgiving and not spend the holiday with others outside their home, warning it could only worsen the coronavirus outbreak. 

An observation tower, seen from the entry boardwalk, offers broad views including an osprey nest with sitting birds at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

Even before the CDC's recommendation, Cathy Christopher, director of sales and marketing for the Inn on Fifth in downtown Naples, said Thanksgiving weekend looked "very erratic." 

"Lots and lots of reservations coming in, more than usual," she said via email. "But, unfortunately, lots of cancellations. So our numbers are up and down constantly." 

With the trend of Americans traveling closer to home, Christopher said she anticipates she'll see more guests coming from Florida's east coast than usual this year, but she still expects occupancy to come in lower than last year. 

"My gut feeling is that our occupancy over the three-day Thanksgiving weekend will not equal last year’s when we were at 100%, but I think we won't be far off. I’m calling it at 92%," she said.

National predictions support her gut feeling. 

More:Tourism continues to suffer in Lee County, but there's reason for optimism

More:COVID-19 travel restrictions at the border keep Canadians away from Southwest Florida

By the numbers

AAA projects 50 million Americans will travel for Thanksgiving this year, down from the 56 million it estimated in 2019, due mostly to health concerns and higher unemployment.

If this year's estimate rings true, it would be the lowest Thanksgiving travel volume seen in the United States in four years — and the largest yearly decline since the Great Recession, down by 9.7% from 2019.

When it released its projections on Nov. 13, AAA warned the number of travelers could shrink further, due to rising COVID-19 case numbers, renewed quarantine restrictions and the CDC's travel advice for the holiday, which didn't come out until almost a week later.

A guest sits in the shade in front of Outrigger Beach Resort in Fort Myers Beach on Friday, June 26, 2020. General manager JeanneÊBigos said that typically this time of year nearly half of the resort's guests are European, but that hasn't been the case this year.

"AAA acknowledges that the decision to travel is a personal one,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for AAA – The Auto Club Group, in a statement. “The CDC says staying home is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19. For those who still decide to travel, we urge you to take every precaution possible to protect yourself and others.”

About 95% of Americans traveling for the holiday are expected to go by car this year — more than usual, due to a fear of flying during a pandemic.

In Florida, travel volume is expected to be down by 5.4% over last year, falling to 2.76 million from 2.91 million.

AAA isn't the only national organization forecasting fewer travelers for the Thanksgiving holiday this year.

So is the American Hotel & Lodging Association. In fact, a national survey the group commissioned showed that 72% of Americans are unlikely to travel for Thanksgiving and 69% are unlikely to travel for Christmas this year.

“This holiday season will be an especially difficult time for all Americans, and our industry is no exception,” said Chip Rogers, the association's president and CEO, in a statement. “Fewer people will be traveling, and business travel remains nearly non-existent. That’s why it’s so important for Congress to pass a relief bill now."

Here's the association's advice for healthy and safe travel, beyond mask-wearing, if you hit the road:

  • Don't travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.
  • Get an annual flu vaccine.
  • Check health departments for local requirements and up-to-date travel information about your destination.
  • Stay six feet from those who do not live with you, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Wash your hands often. 

Previous coverage:Tourism looks a little healthier in Southwest Florida, but recovery could be a long way off

COVID-19 keeping hotel guests away

Southwest Florida's hotels are usually stuffed with visitors for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but COVID-19 is keeping even some of the most loyal repeat guests away.

Those who plan on visiting ask many more questions out of caution, Christopher said.

"Everyone wants to be assured prior to confirming their reservation that there is a lenient cancellation policy and that we are enforcing the best COVID guidelines, like the wearing of masks and constant sanitation," she said.

The Inn on Fifth isn't alone in facing uncertainty over its Thanksgiving business.

On Monday, Bill Waichulis, a senior vice president of operations at the Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers Beach, said occupancy there had reached 85% for the long holiday weekend. He anticipated rooms would sell out closer to Thanksgiving with last-minute bookings, despite the CDC's advice not to travel.

"Right now 7 to 14 days is the booking window," Waichulis said. "It's really short." 

Fortunately for the Pink Shell, it's spread out over 9 acres on the beach, offering plenty of room for guests, Waichulis pointed out.

"You can definitely social distance and we have a fantastic site," he said. "And the weather is going to be great." 

Usual holiday weekend optimism is missing this year

Tourism is a lifeblood industry in Southwest Florida. While it has shed jobs due to the pandemic, it's still one of the leading sectors in the region, supporting more than 56,000 jobs in Lee and Collier counties alone, according to monthly data compiled by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau, doesn't have his usual optimism for the holiday weekend.

"It just does not seem like this Thanksgiving is going to be a very good weekend for travel," he said.

He's heard as much from local hoteliers. 

People walk around the shops at Mercato in Naples on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

"What we're hearing is that the advance reservations are definitely down from where they were last year at this time," he said. "Certainly, that has a lot to do with the pandemic."

On top of that, he said, as coronavirus cases have climbed in recent weeks so too have cancellations.

The CDC's advisory discouraging travel definitely didn't help matters, Wert said.

"That's going to hurt everybody," he said. "Maybe we are better off with all that is going on. I hate to think that way when I'm in the travel business. But I think we've got to take a stand here and get this thing under control." 

Fewer bookings will translate to fewer passengers at Southwest Florida International Airport, known for short as RSW.

Traffic won't be nearly as busy as it has been in years past for the holiday weekend.

The Lee County Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport, expected to see 225 flights daily on average from Nov. 21 through Nov. 29, said communications director Victoria Moreland.

Last year, the average number of daily flights exceeded 260 for the same holiday time span, she said.

Moreland said she's unable to forecast passenger traffic and how it might compare to last year.

However, she said, November traffic is down by about 45% so far, when compared to the same time last year. That's actually "pretty good," with all that's going on — and when put up against other airports in the country, many of which are facing steeper declines, Moreland pointed out.

Through a Stay Safe — RSW Cares for You program, the airport is working to do all it can to protect passengers, from carrying out more frequent and deeper cleanings to making hand sanitizing stations widely available to reducing contact through plexiglass shields at counters, booths and offices.

While there will be plenty of parking and the airport won't be as busy, Moreland said passengers traveling for the holiday should still arrive early for their flights. 

"Even though it won't be as crowded, the travel experience is different this year so we don't want travelers to feel rushed," she said.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead past Thanksgiving, it's even harder than usual to see how the rest of the busy season, which traditionally runs from November to April, will shake out.

At the Inn of Naples, Christopher said she could once again only go by her gut feeling that it's going to be "very good."

"COVID has taught me to stop looking out too far," she said. "I'm not calling season at this point." 

Americans, she said, are still going to want to travel and they are still going to want a break from the cold weather up north, just as they have in years past, bringing them south like the migrating birds.

As for group business, however, the future is a lot less certain, Christopher said. 

"They are not signing contracts for season, but they call every day to ask questions and show interest and want to tentatively hold space," she said. "They are anxious for the day when they feel confident enough to make the commitment. When that time comes, I think the flood gates will open."

At the Pink Shell, Waichulis said, his view of how season might go should become a little clearer when the first big snowstorm hits up north.

In the meantime, he said, he expects much of his business to continue coming from the drive-market, mostly from other parts of Florida, from such places as Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

As for advance reservations, he said, they're lagging for peak season, which usually spans from January to March.

"When you look at the first quarter our pace is substantially behind previous years," he said. "The main reason is people are waiting to make that decision closer in."

Only time will tell, but in the meantime, Waichulus said he just hopes there isn't another government lockdown due to COVID-19 in Florida. 

"It would be a horrible route for us to go," he said. "It would be detrimental to our business."