Marco Island to tourists: 'We're ready for you'

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle

One of the most iconic posters in U.S. history features a stern-looking Uncle Sam, adorned in a star spangled top hat and red bow tie, pointing at his fellow Americans and telling them: I want you. Now Marco Island is trying to send that same message to tourists after last month's infamous landfall of Hurricane Irma.

A postcard from Marco's early years tempts visitors with the idea of South Seas living on an island you can drive to.

More:Southwest Florida's tourism industry hurting from Hurricane Irma

More:Hurricane Irma caused ‘extensive damage’ to Collier beaches; damage elsewhere less severe

With season quickly approaching, business owners, hotel officials and city leaders are hurrying to get the island back in tip-top shape after Irma made landfall as a Category 3 storm on Sept. 10.

The city was almost unrecognizable the day after the storm, with uprooted trees, downed power lines and debris everywhere the eye could see. Now, 30 days after Irma, it's difficult to tell that the hurricane ever passed over the island; utilities are back up and running and the county is, slowly but surely, collecting debris.

In fact, one of the only things left to do is assure tourists the island is ready for them.

“The early national media certainly painted a picture we were going to get hit very hard. People listen to that,” Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in a previous interview.

As bad as Irma was — displacing tens of thousands of residents, knocking out power to millions and being blamed for 72 deaths in the state — physical damage to the tourism infrastructure was not as bad as it might have been.

The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, which served as a shelter for emergency personnel during the storm, suffered minimal damage, and reopened its doors on Oct. 2, just 21 days after Irma made landfall. Now it's one of many businesses actively working to bring tourists to the island.

“While certainly this storm had some impact on our resort, the good news is the beaches are as wide and as welcoming as ever,” Amanda Cox, the hotel's director of sales and marketing, said.

The Marco Island Marriott can be seen one day after Hurricane Irma passed through the state of Florida Monday, September 11, 2017. The hotel was fine except for some scaffolding up above.

The hotel launched a "Return to Paradise" campaign to encourage tourists to visit the island and help its employees return to their normal hours and jobs since many faced financial hardships of their own due to the storm; with 850 employees, the Marriott is the island's largest employer. 

Cox said bookings are already picking up for the coming season, including rebooking of some events that were postponed during and immediately after Irma.

“Four of (five) couples rescheduled their weddings. That was one of my most pleasant surprises,” Cox said in a previous interview.

The county is also launching a positive PR campaign, and its tourism department plans to tap $250,000 from an emergency tourist tax fund to support the campaign.

More:Florida works to tell visitors after Hurricane Irma: 'We're open for business'

More:Collier County will tap emergency money to let world know "The coast is clear"

The county collects a 5 percent tax on all hotel stays, and $1.5 million is set aside each year for special advertising in case of a hurricane, or other harmful tourism event, such as The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that required the same kind of action.

The messaging over the next few weeks will encourage visitors to "return to Paradise for stone crab claws and all things great on Florida's Paradise Coast." Oct. 15 is the start of the stone crab season, and the Stone Crab Festival is slated for Oct. 27-29 in Tin City, despite the hurricane. 

One of the island's hotels won't be benefiting from the county's publicity push; the Marco Island Hilton Beach Resort & Spa will remain closed until 2018.

The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa was already closed for renovations at the time Hurricane Irma hit due to a June 9 electrical fire and June 12 flood, which combined caused more than $1 million in damage. The hotel will reopen in 2018.

The hotel was already closed for renovations at the time Irma hit due to a June 9 electrical fire and June 12 flood, which combined caused more than $1 million in damage according to the Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department's incident report.

More:Contractors say Marco Island Hilton owed $12M for renovations

More:Marco Hilton remains closed after electrical fire

Although the hotel was originally supposed to reopen on Dec. 1, Irma has pushed the reopening into the new year.

"As a result of the impact from Hurricane Irma, the reopening of our restoration and enhancement project has been delayed," according to the Hilton's Facebook page. "Our hotel will remain closed until early 2018 as we work hard to deliver a first-class experience to our resort guests."

Meanwhile, many of the island's restaurants are reopening and waiting for tourists with open arms. Snook Inn reopened on Thursday, thanks to the advanced planning of its owners and hard work of its employees.

More:Hurricane Irma: Most of Marco Island's landmarks withstood storm

Before Irma even struck, co-owner Dennis Passini had gotten his name on a waiting list for post-storm chickee hut repairs. Irma made landfall the day before the business' two-week summer break, but employees were volunteering their time to get the restaurant ready to reopen, Passini said.

Roberto Valesquez pressure washes the parking lot at the Snook Inn on Marco Island on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, two days after Hurricane Irma.

Restaurants in neighboring Goodland are also on the rebound.

“Everyone thinks Goodland is decimated,” Kelly Kirk, co-owner of Kirk Fish Co., said in a previous interview. “But Stan’s has a new stage, The Little Bar has a new patio, we have a new coat of paint. We bounce back pretty good.”

Reporter Laura Layden and columnist Brent Batten contributed to this article.