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Southwest Florida's tourism industry has gone from thriving to surviving.

Before the coronavirus pandemic threw it a curve ball, you might say the region's tourism industry was batting 1,000 — or at least close to it.

In January and February, Lee and Collier counties saw more visitors than they did in the same months in 2019 — a banner year for tourism in the region.

Both counties could have realized a record quarter and maybe even experienced a record season, but everything changed in mid-March when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

Instead, tourism virtually shut down and hotel occupancy fell to record lows.

In case you missed it: Pandemic shutters hotels across Southwest Florida

More: Hotels reopen in Southwest Florida as coronavirus restrictions ease

Experts believe it could take years for the tourism industry — one of Southwest Florida's leading sectors — to bounce back. That applies to everything from hotels and tourist attractions to airlines and entertainment venues.

Some area hotels have yet to reopen.

While the jury is still out on how long the recovery might take, this much is clear: There's a new normal in tourism and it's going to continue to evolve as tourism and travel regain their footing in the United States and across the globe.

New normal

What does the new normal look like in Southwest Florida?

At The Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach, overseen by Boykin Management Co., employees are following "Safe Stay" guidelines developed by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which include a host of enhanced cleaning practices.

The resort has purchased about a dozen hand-held UV wands, which cleaning crews are using feverishly to sterilize touch points in every room daily, from telephones and clocks to light switches and door handles, and to regularly disinfect high traffic areas where the coronavirus could easily spread, from the check-in counter to the pool deck. 

Beyond the more rigorous cleaning routines there are plans to install UV lamps in all of the resort's air-conditioning systems "as soon as possible."

"They are called air scrubbers and they kill viruses, bacteria, germs and things like that. We think that is a smart idea," said Robert Boykin, CEO and chairman of Boykin Management Co.

Although costly, he sees the UV lamps as a wise investment, considering their proven effectiveness in disinfecting surfaces.

"We are in the business of making people feel safe and convincing them that we are paying attention and we are doing everything in our power to sanitize and protect our environments," he said.

Gone are the resort's daily buffet breakfasts, which pose too much risk for disease transmission.

Valets now wear gloves and attendants only touch guests' luggage when they're personally asked to do so.

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A new day

Before bringing employees back to work after the Pink Shell's temporary closure, they got trained in all of the new safety standards and procedures, as if it was their first day on the job.

"It was like opening a hotel brand new," Boykin said. "They couldn't just come back to work and do everything like they were doing it before."

More: Collier County to crack down on vacation rentals

Guests of The Pink Shell must now answer screening questions about their health before check-in, designed to keep anyone who might be sick with the coronavirus — or might have been exposed to it — away.

In the new normal, cleaning crews at the Naples Bay Resort in downtown Naples pay much closer attention to touch points too, such as light switches, remote controls and door handles, in guest rooms, and use new chemicals and tools to disinfect rooms and the common areas, said John Reilly, general manager.

His employees all wear masks and gloves. Hand sanitization stations have been added around the property and many extra steps have been taken to encourage social distancing, from removing stools at the bar to spacing pool chairs more than 6 feet apart.

Going a step further, the hotel now checks the temperatures of all employees before they can start their shifts, sending them home if they have a fever.

The resort's spa remains closed and use of the gym is limited to smaller numbers of guests.

The resort also won't accept guests from any states that still have "stay at home" orders, Reilly stressed, no matter how upsetting it might be to some would-be visitors.

More: Besides restaurants, what other businesses have opened from Naples to Fort Myers, Cape Coral?

Taking it slow

Looking ahead, Reilly remains hopeful that business will return to a more normal volume by November at his resort. 

"In the meantime, I think it's about how you rebuild business and restore confidence, slowly and at the right pace," he said.

Related: Tourism marketing in Southwest Florida focuses on virtual experiences as locals and visitors stay in place

More like this: RSW passenger count may fall to Great Recession levels

The rest of 2020 will be the "hard part," Boykin added, but if new drugs or a vaccine can be developed by next year to help prevent or combat the highly-contagious disease that could really speed up the tourism industry's recovery. 

"The good news is we're in Florida," he said. "It's humid and it's hot and the virus doesn't like that. For the next six months anyhow, you would probably rather be in Florida than anywhere."

Florida — and Southwest Florida — could fare better than many other destinations over the coming months for another reason. Fewer people are flying, fearing the risk of boarding a plane due to the pandemic, and Florida is typically a popular "drive market" in the summer when kids are usually out of school and many families travel by car to nearby destinations.

At the Inn on Fifth, owner Phil McCabe said he considered keeping his hotel closed through June, but decided to reopen it ahead of Memorial Day weekend to try to capitalize on any drive-in holiday traffic, even though he knew it would be much lighter than in years past.

He too believes Southwest Florida could benefit if more Floridians and Americans are traveling closer to home this summer. 

While McCabe is eager to welcome back guests, he admits they won't be able to have the same experience they once did — for now.

The coronavirus has completely upended how the four-star, four-diamond resort operates, forcing it to eliminate much of its personalized services — and to limit use of its upscale amenities, from the spa to the fitness center, for now.

"The entirety of the operation is very, very different," McCabe said. "And it will be like this I see for a long time to come, easily into the fall."  

Passenger traffic nosedives

Like airports across the country and the world, Southwest Florida International has seen its passenger traffic nosedive during the pandemic.

The regional airport reported record-breaking passenger traffic in January and February. Then traffic dropped off by nearly 42% in March over the year — to the lowest number seen since 2003 for the month, usually one of the busiest in Southwest Florida's busy season.

Passenger numbers for April are much bleaker: Hitting a record low of 53,379 — down from a record high of more than 1.1 million in the same month a year ago.

Airline executives have painted a bleak picture, saying they expect a slow recovery.

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While passengers and relatives flitted about Southwest Florida International Airport, cleaning crews tackled escalators, railings and other touchable surfaces. Fort Myers News-Press

Meanwhile, private aviation firms are seeing an uptick in business. One such company is SimpleCharters. In an email, Charles Denault, the company's founder and president, said customer interest out of the smaller Naples Airport has skyrocketed by more than two times over the past few months, with flyers traveling to such places as Nashville, Boston, Chicago, New York and New Hampshire.

"We've found that more and more travelers are first-time users of private aviation and are choosing to charter jets instead of flying on the airlines," he said. "Most of them are saying it's not worth the risks associated with the busy airports."

New rules

Hotels, airports and airlines aren't the only ones taking a big hit from the pandemic. Local attractions have lost business too — and they're hoping for a quick recovery.

The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens reopened May 22, under new operating rules, which include requiring visitors to reserve a timed ticket online at napleszoo.com.

By pushing all of its ticket sales online, the zoo can offer a "contactless entry" and do more to encourage and ensure social distancing.

For now, no more than 300 to 400 visitors will be allowed inside the gates at any one time.

The Shell Factory in Fort Myers recently reopened too. Owner Pamela Cronin said she was eager to get her more than 100 furloughed employees, who were struggling to collect benefits through the state's broken unemployment insurance system, back to work, but safety continues to be her top priority.

Cleaning has gone into overdrive and all employees have been provided with masks if they choose to use them — or a customer wants them to put them on.

"How do we keep the employees and the public safe? Every day is a challenge and we're still figuring that out," Cronin said.

"I think everybody is in the same situation, trying to figure it out," she concluded.

New normal in tourism

Here's what the World Travel & Tourism Council expects the recovery to look like in the tourism initially, beyond all the new safety protocols and practices stemming from the pandemic:

  • A gradual return to travel before a vaccine becomes available on a mass scale
  • An increase in travel closer to home first, with more people staying in their own countries — or even in their own backyards and taking day trips
  • A rise in the demand for travel by the younger set, from the age of 18 to 25, early on because they appear less vulnerable to COVID-19

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