Collier County sets tourism record in May as people itch for return to travel

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier County saw record tourism in May.

Not only are the county's latest tourism statistics a stark contrast to a year ago, but they top 2019. 

According to a report by Tampa-based Research Data Services, the county saw 150,100 visitors in May, an all-time record high. That was up by more than 204% from last year — when COVID-19 raged — and 2.5% higher than the number to beat two years ago — when such a global health crisis seemed unthinkable.

The number of rooms nights booked surged to 219,600 last month, up nearly 176% from last year — and a more than 8% increase from 2019.

With that heightened activity, tourism's economic impact — or total spending — in May came in at more than $237.4 million, rising nearly 280% from a year ago. It registered more than 26% higher than two years ago. 

"Partly that's because of increased rates, but it's also because we are seeing people staying longer. So all of those things are contributing to a significant increase in economic impact," said Anne Wittine, Research Data's director of data analysis, in a monthly report to the Tourist Development Council on Monday.

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The average daily rate rose to a record $315.80 in May, an increase of 65.5% over 2020 and 37.3% over 2019. The rate ranks as one of the highest among the county's competitors in Florida

Occupancy stood at 70.4% in the county in May, up 175% from last year, but down 2.8% from two years ago.

The drop in occupancy from 2019 in part reflects a higher number of hotel rooms, Wittine said. 

"Although we didn't see much growth over 2020, we are still seeing growth over 2019. So there are more rooms to fill," she said of the increase in inventory.

While the growth in hotel rooms has begun to ease in the county, the vacation home rental segment continues to expand, especially on Marco Island, and it's good for the market overall, as the pandemic has created a greater demand for experiences away from crowds, Wittine said. 

"That is a good product for us to have," she said.

While neighboring Lee County has also seen a comeback in tourism, similar data is not available, as its statistics are reported quarterly, not monthly, by a different consultant. 

Better than expected

Until COVID-19 hit, Collier County expected a strong 2020 after a record-setting 2019. While the tourism industry suffered greatly last year, it performed better than expected.

Tourism has come a long way since its low point last year, but it's still recovering, with business and international travel at a crawl, Wittine said. 

"We are very much being sustained by this explosion of pent-up demand in the transient market, with people who now feel like it's safe to travel because they've been vaccinated and they are seeing new cases dropping," she said.

A separate report by tourism research firm STR shows group business remains down by 66% in Naples.

On a bright note, European visitation in May increased enough to start showing up in the statistics again. It registered at 600, up from near-zero last year, while still down more than 97% from 2019.

Tim Sindilar, 10, of Munich, holds up a fish he caught at the Naples Pier on Aug. 11, 2016.

Another good sign? The Lee County Port Authority reported that a record-breaking 946,366 passengers traveled through Southwest Florida International Airport in May. That was an increase of 562% over the same month last year — and up more than 30% from May 2019.

Based on the latest numbers, passenger traffic is up nearly 35% year to date, over last year.

From January to May, Collier County saw 893,600 visitors. In comparing those same months, that's 41.2% more than last year, but 4.8% less than in 2019.

Through May, visitors had booked nearly 1.2 million room nights, up 45.8% from 2020 and close to the same number as two years ago. 

As for economic impact, visitor spending has already surpassed $1.3 billion this year. That's up by more than 63% from 2020 — and by nearly 3.5% from 2019, once again reflecting higher room rates and longer stays.

Observers have attributed the quicker than expected recovery to the success of the county's marketing efforts and messaging, which has 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.

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

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. 

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Another pivot

As new cases of COVID decline and vaccinations rise nationally, the county is pivoting again, moving away from its focus on face masks, disinfection and social distancing, while keeping with its successful pandemic-driven tagline of "Only Paradise Will Do" when it's time to travel again, whether it's for pleasure — or business.

The spring-summer campaign highlights the destination's finest offerings, from its top-notch beaches and golf courses to its unique dining and cultural experiences.

The county's marketing efforts are widening, with more Americans willing to travel farther from home. They target a broad audience, including couples, families and friends who want to travel together. 

In response to the pandemic, the county focused its messaging on drive-in visitors from Florida and nearby states. That has paid off in spades, particularly in luring more tourists from in-state over the past year.

A small group of Bottlenose Dolphins jump in the wake produced by the Manatee II on Chokoloskee Bay during an ecological boat tour in Everglades National Park in 2011.

Through May, the county had attracted nearly 375,000 visitors from Florida. Based on those same five months, that's an increase of nearly 83% from last year — and almost 46% from 2019.

Visitation has increased from all of the county's primary feeder markets within the United States this year, when compared to 2020. That includes the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest, with the Southeast making the biggest comeback. — and even surpassing the numbers seen in 2019 by more than 25%. 

Booming Fourth of July

There's much to be positive about with the expectation of strong visitation for the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, with the return of most celebratory events, including Naples' popular Fourth of July parade downtown and dazzling fireworks near the pier.

Nationally, AAA forecasts travel volumes for Independence Day will be the second-highest on record, approaching the highs set in 2019.

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Nearly 2.6 million Floridians are forecast to take a trip during the holiday weekend, one of the highest numbers on record — and 36% more than in 2020. That spells good news for Collier County and Southwest Florida, which traditionally sees big visitation from Florida's east coast for the holiday.

“Travel is back this summer, as Americans eagerly pursue vacations they’ve deferred for the last year-and-a-half,” said Debbie Haas, vice president of travel for AAA – The Auto Club Group, in a statement. “We saw strong demand for travel around Memorial Day and the kick-off of summer, and all indications now point to a busy Independence Day.”

Looking out over the next few months, survey results from Collier County's lodging managers are as positive as they've been since the start of the pandemic, Wittine said. They're reporting that business is up on all fronts, with bookings and reservations trending ahead of 2019 and average daily rates holding strong for summer.

With fewer last-minute reservations and the booking window expanding, "planning is beginning to get a bit easier," Wittine said. 

Staying ahead

Despite the overly positive monthly report, some members of the Tourist Development Council expressed concerns about other destinations catching up to Collier County's lead in the race to recover over the coming months.

Council member Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing at JW Marriott Marco Island, said she fears the county could suffer this summer, losing some of its traction and growth momentum, with more of its competing destinations open for business — and more heavily marketing themselves to visitors again. 

While Florida's east coast, which stayed on lock-down longer, might start to see larger percentage increases in visitation from last year, Wittine said, it shouldn't hurt Collier County. 

"They have definitely not picked up as quickly as you have," she said. "But everything we are hearing from properties is that numbers for Collier are going to remain extremely good through the summer."

On top of that, the county will soon start to see a resurgence of business and international travelers, Wittine said.

Then there are the transient, or leisure travelers, who intend to come back.

The latest survey results from visitors show a more than 97% satisfaction rate, with more than 91% planning to return.

"Maybe they won't come every single year, but they found a place they were satisfied with and they enjoy visiting," Wittine said. "And that can only be a good thing in terms of visitation for the future."