Bouncing Back: Post-Ian Collier’s tourism industry is returning, Lee’s will take more time

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News
The sun sets over Marco Island.

Collier County’s tourism industry is showing resilience in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

From hotels and resorts to campgrounds, nearly 65 percent of the county’s rental properties for visitors are open for business, just weeks after the powerful storm hit. That’s according to Paul Beirnes, the county’s tourism director.

At a Tourist Development Council meeting Monday, he shared that 74 of 115 properties are operational, with many others expected to reopen over the next 45 days — some within a few weeks.

He acknowledged the recovery is much better in Collier than in Lee, which took a direct hit from the near-Category 5 storm, which caused mass destruction with a record storm surge.

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In Collier, the status of 25 properties is still unknown, due mostly to lingering communication problems post-Ian, including phone, power and internet outages, Beirnes said.

Just because they’ve been unreachable, however, it doesn’t mean there’s “any despair there,” he said.

Seven properties that remain dark have “no insight” on when they’ll reopen, but they’re all “very small,” so it’s “not a large impact,” Beirnes said.

Another nine have reported they’re under repair and in recovery, he said.

It’s not clear how Lee County compares. The county’s tourism director couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, 400 S Collier Blvd., Marco Island, Fla.

Overall, Beirnes told the tourism council the speed of recovery in Collier’s tourism industry is enough to “blow your mind,” with heavily-damaged hotels that looked like they might be closed for 90 days or more, reopening in half the time.

“Shocking, how quick the response is,” he said.

It’s not just the hotels and resorts that are getting back on their feet quickly, but the restaurants, shops and other local businesses that draw residents and visitors alike, such as those on Fifth Avenue South in downtown Naples.

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“Within about a week of the storm, I said the No. 1 question on Fifth Avenue was Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot. It was somewhat out of character how quickly everything came back,” he said.

With many of the county’s larger resorts and hotels back in operation, roughly 80% of the rooms are “open for business,” he said. 

“Frankly, we could be at about 86% of our room inventory within the next 45 days,” Beirnes said. “So not a bad position.”

With more properties open, he said, the situation of “near-zero” occupancy has begun to ease in the county, with blocks of 10 or 15 rooms showing up for the first time since Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28.

March 2022 construction at the Ritz-Carlton on Vanderbilt Beach

In the aftermath of the devastating storm, hotels and other rentals usually reserved for tourists have been packed with first responders, insurance adjusters and construction and clean-up crews — as well as by residents displaced by Ian.

The industry, he said, appears to be turning a corner. 

“Everybody wants an answer of when season will be back and when everybody will, all the contractors will, depart and open up the rooms. We don’t know that. We will know when it happens,” Beirnes said.

Although normalcy is still far off, destination marketing in Collier will resume, albeit cautiously and slowly, with careful wording — and a focus on the area’s resiliency and gratefulness, for the outpouring of support it’s seen from around the world, he said.

The recovery campaign will be heavily anchored by social media and email in October, November and December.

Sunrise, Marco Island, October 4, 2022

In resuming marketing, Beirnes emphasized the importance of “tonality,” and consideration to local residents, and especially neighbors to the north, who are still in recovery and in need of help.

He described the recovery as regional, saying Collier doesn’t plan to position itself in a much better or positive position than any other part of Southwest Florida.

Lee County, especially, will have a much longer row to hoe, with so much more damage and destruction to its coastal hotels and resorts, which could take years to rebuild. 

Beirnes acknowledged as much.

“I am certain, despite the depth of impact in Lee County, they are going to come back,” Beirnes said. “In time, really elevating Southwest Florida.”

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In Lee, many hotels and resorts — and other tourist-driven businesses big and small — have vowed to rebuild, from Fort Myers Beach to Sanibel and Captiva islands.

With all of the reconstruction, Beirnes believes the region will become the “French Riveria of Florida.”

“We have spectacular amenities here and Lee County is just going to continue to do amazing things, as they always do,” Beirnes said.