Collier County saw a near-record number of tourists in 2022

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier County saw more than 1.6 million visitors in 2022.

That fell short of the record set in 2019 – before COVID hit.

Still, the number edged closer to the all-time high of more than 1.9 million reached a few years ago.

In 2022, visitation rose by 3% over the year to 1,627,100 – up from 1,580,100 in 2021.

The year-over-year increase could have been greater, if it hadn't been for a rough fourth quarter.

In the final quarter of the year, the local tourism industry fought to find its footing after taking a beating from Hurricane Ian in late September – and then faced disruptions from mass flight cancellations during the holiday season, caused by severe winter weather up north.

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No question, the cancelled flights in December trickled down through the "whole tourism economy," said Joseph St. Germain, president of Downs & St. Germain, at a Tourist Development Council meeting Monday.

He presented both the year-end and December visitor statistics to the advisory council. The reports are based on overnight stays in hotels and other paid rentals, including condos and single-family homes.

Over the year in December, Collier County saw:

  • Occupancy fall by 5.5%
  • Average daily rate drop by 8.5%
  • Economic impact and spending decline by 3.8%

The number of visitors and room nights booked rose slightly over the year, which St. Germain attributed primarily to an increase in licensed vacation rentals in the market, as reported by the state.

While annual visitor statistics for 2022 aren't available for neighboring Lee County yet, its tourism industry took a more serious pounding with a direct hit from Ian. At this point, about 70% of the county's hotel rooms are open for business – compared to 90% in Collier.

Collier saw increases in all of its tourism metrics from 2021 to 2022. That includes:

  • Room nights – with more than 2.67 million booked (+7.7%)
  • Economic impact – with nearly $2.8 billion spent (+12.3%)
View of Marco Island, Florida, from the air.

Tourism spending has been on the rise, due to inflation and to travel taking up a bigger part of the average American's wallet, with a renewed appreciation for it since the lifting of COVID-related restrictions and bans, St. Germain said.

"Once travel was taken away, people just started to understand how important it is to them," he said.

Last year's visitor count is the second highest on record.

Here's a look at the top markets of origin:

  • Florida, 450,000
  • Southeast, 210,600
  • Northeast, 333,700
  • Midwest, 417,200

The growth in tourism from 2021 to 2022 is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the county's Tourist Development Council, tourism bureau, marketing team and "all the hoteliers in this area," St. Germain said.

Such growth is not easy to sustain.

In fact, there's "not an optimistic view" of this year's first quarter, when compared to 2022, as the area continues to recover from Ian, with some would-be visitors unsure if it's too soon to return, St. Germain said.

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

Season isn't the same this year

In a survey in December, 64% of hotel owners and managers in Collier shared their reservations for the next three months are down over last year. Only 15% stated they're up, with 21% saying they're the same.

While it may spur concern, St. Germain reminded the tourism council of just how strong the winter season was last year. So, he said, the survey results should be taken with "some grain of salt."

The county initially held back on tourism marketing after Ian, but it's back in full swing with a bold new campaign, created before the storm. The county's tourism bureau has decided to carry on with the planned campaign, steering clear of any messaging related to Ian – or recovery.

"We are full steam ahead," said Paul Beirnes, the county's tourism director.

More:Tourism in Collier County breaks records in 2019

One of the more immediate goals is to attract visitors who might have gone to Lee County, but won't because there's so much damage – and rebuilding yet to do. The intent is not to steal them away, but rather to try to keep them in Southwest Florida, and to have them return to their favorite spots to the north – such as Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach – as soon as the time is right, Beirnes said.

It's important to keep tourists for many reasons, including the potential for cutbacks in air service if visitation slows, a step back for the local community and the economy, he said.

Collier County Tourism Director Paul Beirnes poses for a portrait, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, at his offices in Naples.

The new marketing campaign in Collier centers around the word only, in all caps. It will promote the area as the only place for the finest of everything, from great dining and one-of-a-kind shopping to ecological adventures and beautiful beaches and sunsets.

"It says we are exclusive and special," said Tom Merrick, chief creative officer for Paradise Advertising, which developed the campaign.

After a pause, tourism marketing has resumed in Lee County too, albeit with a much different approach.

At a Fort Myers Chamber luncheon last week, Brian Ososky, director of marketing for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, shared information about the launch of a more reserved recovery campaign, dubbed "My Fort Myers."

The campaign is designed to "reignite passion for the destination," featuring personal testimonials from residents, visitors and "loyalists," sharing their "treasured experiences and the emotional connection" they have to the area's islands, beaches and neighborhoods. It includes print and digital ads – and it's aimed at past visitors, not new ones.

The effort will run through March and target in-state visitors, as well as out-of-state ones from the Northeast and Great Lakes regions and Canada, with limited national targeting.

Separately, the bureau has developed a trio of campaigns directed at meeting planners, travel advisers and newly engaged couples for weddings. They'll also run through March and include print and digital ads, as well as emails.

In the fiscal year ending in September, both Lee and Collier counties collected record tourist taxes.

However, in 2022-23 they're running behind last year.

In Collier, they're off by nearly 32% year-to-date (through December).

Both counties levy a 5% bed tax on hotel and other vacation rentals. They use those taxes to fund destination marketing, beach maintenance, sports stadiums and other tourism-related attractions and activities.