'What a difference a year makes': Tourism making major comeback in Naples and Collier County

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Tourism is roaring back in Naples.

The latest visitor statistics show it.

The Naples area — or Collier County — saw an "amazing April," with every metric used to track tourism up from a year ago, by a startling percentage. 

That's according to Anne Wittine, the director of data analysis for Research Data Services, the county's tourism consultant.

She shared the good news with the county's Tourist Development Council on Monday.

"What a difference a year makes," Wittine said before drilling down into the telling numbers in a monthly report for April.

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

The report — based on overnight stays in paid lodging — points to a strong recovery from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the travel and tourism industry last year.

To that, Collier County Commissioner Andy Solis, chairman of the Tourist Development Council, said simply: "It's good to hear."

Here's a look at some of the April numbers, compared to the same month last year, when the coronavirus crisis raged:

  • Visitors: 159,900, +1,290%
  • Room nights: 275,700, +917%
  • Economic impact: $282 million, +1,949%
  • Hotel occupancy: 82.8%, +910%

While those numbers might seem rather remarkable, so are similar comparisons to two years ago, long before the coronavirus arose.

Comparisons to April 2019 show:

  • A 9% increase in visitors
  • A 24% increase in room nights
  • A 20% increase in economic impact
  • A 2% increase in occupancy

Collier County saw record tourism in 2019, so any increase from that year is viewed as even more impressive, Wittine said.

Similar data is not available for Lee County, as its statistics are reported quarterly, not monthly.

Andy Solis

Beating the competition

In Collier, April might have been a bit unusual, drawing visitors here who may have wanted to come sooner, but waited to get vaccinated — or just to feel more comfortable with traveling, Wittine said.

"So this isn't quite a normal pattern, but it's extremely, extremely good news," she said.

A separate report by tourism research firm STR shows the Naples area outperforming much of its competition in Florida in April, with higher occupancy and average daily rates than most, including Fort Myers, or Lee County.

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

Wittine described Collier County's average daily rate for last month as "outstanding." It rose to $361.64, up 108% from 2020 and 13% from 2019.

While May statistics won't be out for another month in Collier, Wittine expects them to hold strong based on what she's heard from area hoteliers through surveys. The long Memorial Day weekend will help, as business looks solid, she said.

AAA predicted more than 37 million Americans would travel 50 miles or more from home for the holiday weekend — an increase of 60% from last year.

In Florida alone, more than 2 million residents are forecast to take a trip.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. Most of the tourists headed this way are expected to come from Florida's east coast, as they traditionally do. 

Looking ahead, local hoteliers are generally optimistic, with few complaints, other than from inland and off-beach properties that are still dealing with a higher-than-usual number of last-minute reservations, due to the lingering uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Wittine said.

Collier County saw 743,500 visitors from January to April. That's a 27% increase over last year and a 6% decrease over 2019.

Likewise, in those four months, room nights and spending rose by double digits over the year. Spending — or economic impact — almost caught up to the level it reached in 2019 — topping $1 billion.

Hoteliers have reported the busy season, which traditionally runs from November to April, turned out better than expected. 

In explaining one of the reasons for a stronger season Wittine repeated what a hotelier told her: Americans, tired of staying home, or close to it, just said: "Stuff it. We're going anyway."

'Only paradise will do'

The recovery in Collier, in part, reflects the success of the tourism bureau's ongoing marketing campaign, said Jack Wert, the county's tourism director, who heads up the bureau.

"We have been reminding potential visitors in our promotional messaging that, if it is time to explore something different than what the past year has demanded, 'Only Paradise Will Do.' We show those potential visitors the activities they may have missed and are anxious to experience again," he said.

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Solis describes the marketing campaign as a "home run." 

The pivot in marketing included pushing awareness of the Paradise Pledge, a pledge dozens of local businesses took to follow all of the safety guidelines recommended by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health to curb the spread of COVID-19.

It helps that Collier County has wide-open spaces, such as the Everglades and Big Cypress, as well as beaches, where visitors can avoid crowds, enjoy the outdoors and reduce the risk of catching or spreading COVID. 

 Eclectic dining options continue to drive visitors here, who have grown weary of cooking and eating at home.

"Most of all we offer relaxation opportunities for both couples and families," Wert said. "We have attracted Floridians that had never before visited our area of Florida and they are now committed to returning for future visits," he said.

Jack Wert, executive director, Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau

"We are also seeing renewed interest from visitors from the Chicago area, a region that had declined over the past few years," Wert added.

Indeed, increased visitation from Floridians has been a big part of the destination's recovery and comeback from the coronavirus. The tourism bureau has put more time, money and resources into attracting in-state residents since the pandemic hit, capitalizing on trends that have emerged from the crisis, including a greater interest in road trips and traveling closer to home.

From January to April, the county saw 289,160 visitors from Florida, up 79% from 2020 and 46% from 2019. 

Domestic visitation from the Midwest and Northeast has also grown this year, surpassing the numbers seen in 2019.

Foreign visitation is still too small to measure, as international travel is expected to take much longer to recover.  

Likewise, group business is still suffering, but it is showing signs of improvement.

So, it's leisure travelers who are leading the way to a recovery in the tourism business here — as they are across the country.

"The future looks very bright," Wert said. "Visitors that have helped us to recover fast from the pandemic are telling us in research that they have interest in returning again soon to experience more of Florida’s Paradise Coast."