Collier County could see record year for tourism, but 'competition is going to be fierce'

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier County remains on track to see a record year in tourism.

While there's reason to celebrate, the good news comes with words of caution, as the surge in visitation and visitor spending seen so far this year isn't sustainable, said Paul Beirnes, the county's tourism director. 

He warned the Collier County Tourist Development Council as much at its monthly meeting Monday.

"The reality is competition is going to be fierce," Beirnes said.

Competing destinations are expected to turn up the heat on their marketing efforts, he said, if they haven't already, eager to put the pandemic behind them, despite the rise of the COVID variant. 

"There is going to be some rough waters," Beirnes said. "But we can navigate through it."

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As of August, visitation, bookings and spending remained higher than at the same time in 2019 — a banner year for tourism in Collier.

Tourism consultant Research Data Services, based in Tampa, shared the latest visitor statistics with the Tourist Development Council — and Beirnes provided more perspective.

Here's what tourism looked like for the months of January through August of 2021, compared to the same months in 2019 — before COVID-19 hit, bringing travel to a virtual halt for months in 2020:

  • Visitors: Nearly 1.37 million, up 1.4%
  • Room nights booked: Almost 1.8 million, up 1.1%
  • Economic impact: More than $1.88 billion, up 11.9%

The report is based on overnight stays in hotels and other paid lodging, including condos and single-family homes.

Bad news affects tourism

August wasn't nearly as strong as June or July in Collier County, as the delta variant spread in Florida, generating bad publicity statewide.

The county's tourism bureau made the difficult decision to pull back on advertising last month, realizing it wasn't likely to combat the negative headlines, bringing only a "diminutive return" in what's traditionally one of the slowest months for tourism anyway, Beirnes said.

Collier County Tourism Director Paul Beirnes poses for a portrait, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, at his offices in Naples.

"Florida was certainly in the media, globally," he said. "It wasn't always flattering." 

Naples Councilman Michael McCabe, another member of the Tourist Development Council, described the decision to shift gears and reduce spending an "astute call."

City of Naples Councilman Mike McCabe speaks during a City Council meeting on May 13, 2021.

Nimble has become "the new norm," Beirnes said, and so far, it's been highly effective for Collier County. 

After a strong June and July, the county saw noticeable dips in visitation and bookings in August, compared to the same month in 2019.

The economic impact from visitors this August, however, still came in higher than two years ago — hitting more than $114 million, a 15.7% increase over 2019. The increase primarily reflects the higher room rates hotels and other vacation rental owners are commanding in the destination. 

In Collier, the average daily rate in August rose to $224.70, up more than 27% from 2019.

The latest report showed a year-over-year decline in visitation from Florida residents in August, signaling that they could be choosing to go farther from home because they feel more comfortable doing so — and more enticed by destinations that are once again welcoming tourists with open arms.

Collier County's tourism bureau has put more time, money and resources into attracting in-state residents since the pandemic hit, and it's paid off in a big way.

By the way:Collier hopes to preserve history of tourism, fishing industry in Goodland via restoration of cottages

And:Sports tourism bounces back in Southwest Florida

A long way

Comparing visitor metrics from 2020 to 2021 shows just how far Collier's tourism industry has come in its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. 

In August, visitation in the county rose 16.3% over the same month last year, for example.

Meanwhile, the number of room nights booked increased 23%, while economic impact grew by nearly 42% over the year.

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

However, it too has seen a strong recovery.

Tamara Pigott, Lee County's tourism director, said data she's seen from several sources show that her county had a "very strong performance" in August. 

She pointed to the record-setting passenger numbers recorded at Southwest Florida International last month.

The Lee County Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport, reported 647,534 passengers traveling through it in August, an increase of 180% over last year and 23% more than two years ago.

Year-to-date, passenger traffic is up 66.7% when compared to 2020.

"The general consensus is that we are still benefiting from pent-up demand, but we have also done a nice job of positioning our area as a place where you can relax and spend most of your time outdoors, something travelers have been particularly interested in during the pandemic," Pigott said in a statement.

Tamara Pigott, the executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau speaks at the annual "E" Awards at Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater in Fort Myers on Thursday, August 26, 2021.  The awards recognize those that make a difference in the tourism industry.

Still, there's a reason for caution and concern in both counties.

Less optimistic

In its latest surveys, Research Data Services found would-be travelers aren't as optimistic about taking trips as they were a few months ago. They're more fearful of eating out, shopping at stores, visiting attractions and flying to their destinations, with the delta variant lurking about and continuing to spread, said Anne Wittine, the company's director of data analysis.

With the rapid spread of the delta variant in Florida, she said, more than 30% of respondents to her firm's survey stated they weren't interested in traveling to the state, compared to about  26.5% who answered that way in June.

While there have been negative shifts in tourism due to the delta variant, Wittine said it hasn't been as bad as feared.

One respondent to Research Data's survey shared a belief that COVID is here to stay and life must go on.

"What I think we are seeing is that people are figuring out ways to live life around COVID," Wittine said. 

Looking ahead, she expects Collier County to see another spike in tourism once children under the age of 12 can get vaccinated for COVID, putting them more at ease.

Clark Hill

Clark Hill, manager of Hilton Naples and a member of the Tourist Development Council, said when COVID cases rise in Florida, he suddenly sees more cancellations and fewer bookings.

Conversely, when that number falls, his business suddenly picks up again.

"It's that quick," he said.