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Tourism on a bumpy road to recovery in Southwest Florida

Laura Layden
Marco Eagle

Tourism continues to show signs of a recovery in Southwest Florida.

Recovery, however, isn't on a straight line.

The tourism industry is still suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, which has discouraged — and in some cases prevented — travel since it hit in March.

In Collier County, October didn't look as good as September, which saw a strong showing of drive-in visitors for the long Labor Day holiday weekend, many of whom came from Florida's east coast for a quick getaway.

The county — including Naples, Marco Island and Immokalee — had 127,200 visitors staying in its hotels and other vacation rentals last month, down 17.4% from the 154,000 it saw in the same month last year, according to the latest report by Tampa-based Research Data Services.

With fewer visitors in town, the county saw a decline in most of its tourism metrics in October. Compared to a year go, here's what those numbers look like: 

  • Room nights booked: 148,000, down 24.4%
  • Total spending: $112,175,400, down 21.6%
  • Occupancy: 67.5%, down 33.9%
  • Revenue per available room: $81.72, down 31.5%

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On a more positive note, the average daily rate continued to hold strong — at $176.70, up 3.7% from last year.

Ann Wittine, director of data analysis for Research Data Services, shared her firm's latest statistics with the Tourist Development Council at its monthly meeting Monday.

She told council members the county saw a bigger year-over-year drop in visitation in October than in September for several reasons, including the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. presidential election.

"October is not quite as positive, but still is on a recovery path," Wittine said.

Guests sit under yellow umbrellas in front of Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach on Friday, June 26, 2020. Pink Shell general manager Bill Waichulis said that an uptick in out of state visitors is filling much of the gap in business left by the "non-existent" European tourism this summer.

Not alone

Monthly statistics aren't available in Lee County, but its tourism industry has also felt the hurt from the pandemic. 

The third-quarter report for Lee — prepared by Tallahassee-based Downs & Germain Research — shows visitor numbers plunged by nearly 32% over the year, falling to 752,400. Likewise, tourism spending shrank by 8.8% to $500 million.

As in Collier County, Lee has seen its average daily rate rising, despite lower demand. In September, the rate stood at $112.52, up 10.6% from the same month a year ago, according to a separate report by tourism research firm STR.

August, September and October are usually among the slowest months for tourism in Southwest Florida. The busy season typically starts in November and runs through April, when northerners flock to Sun Belt states, such as Florida, to escape the cold and soak up some sun at a time when it's not too hot.

While reservation windows remain "extremely short," Wittine said hotel managers in Collier are reporting an uptick in interest from visitors hailing from the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.

"We are starting to see some return of our normal business," she said. 

However, Wittine noted that while some area hoteliers have expressed optimism about where tourism is headed, others are "extremely not optimistic," due in part to the pace of future bookings, which are coming in weeks — or even days — ahead of time, instead of months in advance.

In Research Data Service's latest survey, more than 87% of hotel owners and managers in Collier reported forward reservations for the next three months are down over last year. 

In a similar survey done by Downs & Germain Research in Lee County, 79% of the lodging representatives who answered reported that their reservations for October through December were down.

Looking farther out, 73% of those surveyed said bookings are trending down for January through March, considered the peak of the busy season.

There are hopes that a shorter planning window is the primary reason for the downward trend, but only time will tell.

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

Inventory up

The pandemic isn't the only factor hurting hotels — and other vacation property owners in Southwest Florida.

Wittine continued to emphasize that occupancy rates in Collier have also been impacted by an increase in the supply of hotel rooms — as well as other types of short-term rentals, including single-family homes and condos competing for the same visitors.

The county now has 11,145 licensed lodging units, up nearly 10% from a year ago, when it had 10,149.

"You've got 10% more licensed transient lodging units in the market than you did at this time last year, which is a huge increase," Wittine said. "So there is a lot more to sell, which is impacting occupancy in addition to everything else that's going on."

Lee County has seen a similar surge in its supply of hotel rooms and rentals, which has put downward pressure on its occupancy rates too.

Mid-week has been the toughest time to fill hotel rooms and other rentals, with much stronger demand for the weekend.

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Through the pandemic, Southwest Florida has seen more visitors coming from other parts of the state, which has helped offset declines from its other top feeder markets in the U.S. and abroad.

In fact, Collier saw a 60% increase in visitors from Florida in October compared to the same month a year ago, Wittine said.

"We're also seeing growth from the Southeast," she said.

In terms of employment, there are good signs there too.

The number of workers directly employed in the leisure and hospitality business in Collier grew to 26,700 in October. While that was down by 6.6% over the same month last year, it was an improvement from September, according to the most recent data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

By comparison, industry employment in Lee County stood at 35,100 in October, down from 41,800 a year ago, but up from 33,100 in September.

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

Taking a break

Leisure — or vacation — travelers are driving the market. While group travel remains suppressed, however, it has begun to slowly tick up, Wittine said.

In October, group business accounted for only 4.5% of the total occupancy in Collier, down more than 82% from last year.

The number of travelers flying to the destination remains low, with less than 14% of the county's visitors arriving by air last month, compared to nearly 57% last year, Wittine said.

"We have been seeing that number gradually tick up," she said. "It is not recovering as fast as other numbers, but it is moving in the right direction."

Southwest Florida International Airport saw 255,926 passengers in September, down from 460,869 last year. While traffic was down more than 44%, it was stronger than where it registered in August.

"If you look back historically, September is usually slower than August," Wittine said. "So there we are also seeing recovery and improvement."

By the way:COVID-19 travel restrictions at the border keep Canadians away from SWFL

Updated information released by the Lee County Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport, offered more promising news.

In October, the airport saw 417,305 passengers, down 34.7% from a year ago, but up more than 63% from September, according to the latest data.

While international traffic has plummeted at the airport, Wittine said her surveyors are starting to run into more foreign visitors, including some from Argentina.

In her report, Wittine also shared statistics for the entirety of fiscal 2020, from October to September. Compared to last year, here's what those numbers look like: 

  • Visitors: 1.52 million, down 19.7%
  • Room nights booked: 1.96 million, down 21%
  • Economic Impact: $1.73 billion, down 23.4%

Wittine explained that the economic impact took a bigger hit because the county is attracting more Florida residents, who aren't staying as long or spending as much money in the destination.

Year-to-date, for January to September, here's what Lee County's numbers look like, compared to last year, according to its consultant:

  • Visitors: 2.29 million, down 37.6%
  • Room nights booked: 3.09 million, down 25.2%
  • Economic impact: $3.22 billion, down 21.4%
Tourists and locals take in the Gulf of Mexico from the Naples Pier on Aug. 11, 2016, in Naples.

Survey mixed

Wittine also shared some promising and concerning findings from her firm's latest consumer sentiment surveys on vacation travel with the Tourist Development Council.

In a survey conducted Oct. 26 through Nov. 8, 40.5% of green light travelers — those identified as the most comfortable with and likely to travel — stated they're ready to take another trip.

"That is the highest number that we've seen since tracking this likelihood," Wittine said.

"People are very much feeling like they're ready to get out. And start to move around," she added.

Another good sign? A "stunning" 41.1% of all those surveyed, said they're optimistic about the economy, the highest number to date, Wittine said.

In addition, 14.4% of respondents said they've scheduled a trip.

"But they've not yet booked it, which means that those people are looking around and trying to decide where they want to go and are ripe for hearing destination messaging to make a decision about where they actually want to book," Wittine said.

On a less positive note, she said many still think most places are closed in the destination they want to visit. That consumer sentiment is "moving very much in the wrong direction," Wittine said.

In the firm's latest survey, only 17.6% said they think places out there in the world are mostly open, down from 27 percent who thought so in the middle of October.

Wittine encouraged Collier County and its tourism bureau to do whatever it can as part of its marketing and advertising efforts to let would-be visitors know the local economy is open again, including its popular shops, restaurants and attractions.

"Anything that you guys can do through your web page and other messaging to let people know what they are going to experience when they get there is going to help people make the choice to come and visit Collier County," she said.