Hurricane Ian aftermath: The road to recovery for tourism will be a long one

Major tourist attractions in central Florida began reopening Friday after Hurricane Ian ripped through the state. But the storm’s path of destruction along the southwest coast left many businesses facing a long rebuilding process.

“Places that people are used to going to that are no longer in existence, I'm afraid that it could be a year or two, could be years before that even gets back to any form of normalcy,” said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

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Hurricane Ian slammed into the Fort Myers area on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, flooding buildings and leaving millions without power. So far, the death toll is at least 27, the Associated Press reported Friday. President Joe Biden said Ian could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.

An entire island 'pretty much gone'

Sanibel, a barrier island in Lee County southwest of Fort Myers, was devastated by Ian after getting hit by what Gov. Ron DeSantis called a “biblical” storm surge. The hurricane severely damaged the Sanibel Causeway, the 3-mile connector between the island and mainland Florida, cutting off access to the community of 6,300 people.

“Sanibel Island is pretty much gone,” Dover said. “All of our hotels and restaurants are either gone completely or have a long way to go to get back on their feet.”

The Sanibel Lighthouse still stands on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, following Hurricane Ian. The structures under the Sanibel Lighthouse were lost.
The Sanibel Lighthouse still stands on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, following Hurricane Ian. The structures under the Sanibel Lighthouse were lost.

Sanibel Moorings Resort, located on the barrier island, said its offices “appear to have been washed through completely” and will remain closed until further notice.

“I am afraid it will be a long time before we can get back in the Island to fully access the damage,” the beach resort said in a Facebook post, adding that it can’t begin contacting people with future reservations until utilities have been restored.

The Sunshine State’s leisure and hospitality sector employ more than 1.2 million people, a 9.6% increase from last year, according to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity. The vast majority of those jobs are in accommodation and food services.

Some hotels and restaurants that weren’t severely damaged, Dover said, have started cleaning up with the hopes of opening back up soon.

“Those are the lucky ones," Dover said. "The ones less fortunate, they will be completely out of the job, out of work.”

The passage of the storm will likely impact some of the nearly 70,000 jobs that are dependent on visitor spending in Lee County alone, said Twila Mae Logan, associate professor at Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

Damage from Hurricane Ian can be seen on Sanibel and St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.
Damage from Hurricane Ian can be seen on Sanibel and St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

"During the period of restoration and rebuilding, lodging establishments will be closed or have significantly reduced occupancy, which may result in layoffs and furlongs of their employees," Logan said in an email.

But the economic activity that results from rebuilding infrastructure, Logan said, could offset some of the lost employment and business activities in the hospitality and tourism industry.

Major theme parks carry on

Theme parks are a major attraction for Florida, drawing millions of visitors year-round. Central Florida is home to some of the most frequented parks in the world, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

In the Orlando area, Disney World and Universal Orlando began reopening on Friday in phases. Meanwhile, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Adventure Island, SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove parks reopened Saturday.

“We continue to closely monitor weather conditions as we assess the impact of Hurricane Ian on our property,” Disney Parks tweeted Thursday.

Florida ranks among the most visited states in the country. Overall, Florida welcomed nearly 118 million domestic visitors in 2021. The city of Orlando alone saw 59.3 million visitors last year, according to the tourism board Visit Orlando.

"Our hearts continue to be with all those impacted by Hurricane Ian and we are grateful for the hard work of our team members during this challenging time," Universal Orlando said in a statement. "We look forward to welcoming back all our guests and team members."

The areas most impacted by Ian could see a dip in visitor numbers, Logan said. The fall in arrivals will depend on how quickly areas like Naples and Fort Myers can rebuild their public and private infrastructure.

"The hospitality and tourism industry is an extremely resilient one," Logan said. "The recent COVID -19 pandemic has demonstrated that this industry has the knowledge and ability to rise-up and emerge stronger from disasters and setbacks."

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Florida tourism impact is signifcant