Day, weekend visitors from Marco Islanders provide needed boost

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The Conch Tour Train tells two stories as it makes it away around Key West.

The tour highlights the historic and cultural highpoints of the Island from President Harry Truman’s home, the variety of entertainment on Duval Street, Ernest Hemingway penning many of his novels there to Jimmy Buffett’s affinity for the island and the role it played in helping him finish the hit song “Margaritaville.”

Simply put, there's something for everyone.

But the sights along the different routes also tell a story of how the Florida Keys, at least from a tourism point of view, have attempted to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. 

“If you’re asking if we’re back to normal tourism levels pre-Labor Day, no we’re not but we’re getting there,” Andy Newman, senior vice president of NewmanPR, said. “We're getting very close.”

As Bruce, one of the train engineers, mixes humor, music and anecdotes to tell stories about Key West, he does occasionally point out some of the nicks and scratches the island sustained.

Key West, which was forced its airport to close from Sept. 8-19 and its port to close from Sept. 6-22 last year, was one of the least impacted areas along with Key Largo as most of the main infrastructure either remained intact or was repaired quickly.

A little more than a month after the storm, Newman said the Island held one of its main events, Fantasy Fest, with no disturbance. Newman described Fantasy Fest as Key West's response to New Orleans's Mardi Gras or Rio De Janeiro's Carnival.

"There was very little evidence that a Category 4 (hurricane) had passed through here," Newman said.

While most of the tourist destinations are now cleaned up to the extent that no one would know what happened, it wasn't without some scary moments. 

Prior to the hurricane’s formation, data showed that tourism was performing well in Florida, according to a report prepared for Visit Florida by Tourism Economics. 

From January to August, enplanements were up 4.9 percent while hotel room demand and out-of-state visits rose by 3.3 percent in the state.

Those numbers, however, were impacted in September saw an 11.6 percent decrease in airport business, none more than in Key West.

While most airports in southern Florida saw a decrease of at least 15 percent, Key West saw a decrease of 63.4 percent while overall hotel demand in the Florida Keys declined by 44 percent.

Tourism economics estimated the hurricane resulted in $1.5 billion from September to December.

For Key West and Key Largo, Newman said part of the problems the tourism industry experienced were based on misconceptions about damage to islands or the ability and the quality of stay after the hurricane.

Besides noting that water and power were restored to most parts within a few weeks, Newman said that the active hurricane season and storms in other parts of the U.S. played a part in keeping people away.

“The further you get away from an area, more difficult it gets for people to understand the geography,” Newman said.

For all the doom and gloom, the tourism industry has recovered nicely after millions of dollars were expended and greater efforts to market the Keys were made by the state and Monroe County, where Key West is the county seat, to boost tourism.

Florida was able to attract a record 116.5 million visitors last year that could have been 1.8 million higher without the storm.

Visit Florida announced a $200,000 marketing campaign for the Florida Keys last month that would highlight one Island each day.

Newman said all marketing dollars were positive and a step in helping rid any of the misconceptions about the condition of the Keys or the quality of the experience.

Relative to other parts of the Florida Keys, Key West was able to stave off some of the damage, but the hotel industry in Key West was still impacted as 27 percent of rooms were off-line in October.

That number rebounded to 5 percent in May and was close to 3 percent now, Newman said.

For the Florida Keys as a whole, Newman said 90 percent of lodging establishments are back up and running with a few major properties set to open by Labor Day weekend.

For an economy built primarily on the tourist industry, there is also hope with greater numbers of passengers coming in this year compared to the same period last year.

Data from the Key West International Airport show that passenger arrivals are up 3 percent while the number of cruise passengers in May was 53.5 percent higher than 2017, according to data from the City of Key West Port Operations.

Even with the sweltering heat and early departure times, the Key West Express boat that transports passengers between Marco Island or Fort Myers Beach and Key West is packed in July. 

For veterans of Key West that don’t require a tour, they see it as a small bump in the road.

Jacob Miller, 47, said he has made Key West an annual destination stop from his home in New York state for more than a decade.

“You see things here and there,” Miller said. “But as you move around, main drags, like Duval Street, Front Street and Mallory Square, are still packed and have that same vibrancy and energy that brought me down here.”

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