Images of Hurricane Ian’s destruction appeared in the news and social media all over the world. So it’s no wonder many tourists stayed away from Southwest Florida for much of last season.
That could start changing in 2023-24, says Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, who also chairs Lee County’s Tourist Development Council. But it might be another year or two before Southwest Florida returns to the record tourism numbers of its previous season.
“I think a lot of it is uncertainty about how much the area really has recovered,” Hamman says.
Even so, Southwest Florida tourism officials are doing whatever they can to bring people back to Southwest Florida in the coming months – including ad campaigns in Canada, Boston and the Midwest.
And they want people everywhere to know: Most of Southwest Florida is open for business and ready to bring the fun.
“There is stuff to visit right now,” Hamman says. “There is a wonderful community to come visit right now, today. There are beaches that are open right now, today.
“And you could have a great vacation right now, today, here in Lee County. And I want people to know that.”
Here’s what else Hamman and Collier County tourism leader Paul Beirnes had to say about tourism in Southwest Florida, what they’re doing to bring people back and what the future looks like for the area’s tourism industry:
Hurricane Ian’s tourism impact in Collier and Lee counties
Lee County bore the brunt of Ian’s wrath on Sept. 28, 2022 and much of Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel Island and Pine Island are still recovering. But Collier County saw a lot of damage, too.
“Honestly, every one of us in the industry was shell-shocked from the amount of water on Fifth Avenue and what that meant to restaurants and retailers,” says Beirnes, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And then you get to the hotel properties. In the early stages, there were a lot of sleepless nights with just what the future would look (like) for us.”
Everyone rallied, though, and much of Collier County was open for business again by December 2022.
“Compared to the direct hit on Lee County and infrastructure, yes, indeed, we fared blessingly better,” Beirnes says. “That said, there was a significant impact here, and it still remains.”
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That story plays out in Collier County’s tourism numbers. From October 2022 to the end of July 2023, Collier County saw 1.73 million visitors who – thanks to spending at hotels, restaurants and elsewhere – made an economic impact of about $2.5 billion, Beirnes says. That’s a 9-percent drop in visitors from the same time period during the previous season: 1.95 million visitors and an economic impact of $3 billion.
Even so, that’s not bad considering 2021-2022 was a record-breaking year for tourism everywhere in Southwest Florida.
“2022 hit all-time historic records on every metric,” Beirnes says. “Absolutely everything, mind-boggling numbers.”
On top of that, this past season actually beat the previous record-holding season of 2019-20, he says. “That we can outperform what was considered a historical year, that big, is a pretty significant win. We’ve been able to rebound pretty good.”
Meanwhile, things have been taking longer in Lee County – especially on Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.
From October 2022 to July 2023, Lee County saw 2.1 million visitors who left an economic impact of about 3.7 billion, according to tourism reports from the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. That’s a 46-percent drop in visitors from the previous season: 3.91 million visitors and an economic impact of $5.7 billion.
“So Hurricane Ian has really taken a toll on our tourism,” Hamman says.
Hotels still opening
Much of that drop in tourism can be blamed on hotels being destroyed or shut down from Hurricane Ian. That’s especially true on hard-hit Fort Myers Beach and even more so on Sanibel Island.
Before Ian, Sanibel had 1,438 hotel rooms open and available to take visitors, Hamman says.
Right now, there are 36.
“So Sanibel, that’s where you’re going to see major reconstruction happening,” Hamman says. “Sanibel has a long road ahead of it, but I think we’re gonna do everything we can.”
But here’s the good news: Most of the hotels are already open in Lee and Collier counties. And more are coming online in the next few months.
“We’ve got 70 percent of our hotel rooms still open, and we need to get those rooms full,” Hamman says. “Because our economy, locally, is counting on those tourists to come down here and spend that money.
“About 20 percent of our jobs come from tourism, so we need to do what we can to keep tourism strong.”
In Collier County, things are looking even better. Three of the area’s biggest hotels are either open or opening soon.
The Naples Grande Beach Resort reopened quickly at full capacity after Ian, Beirnes says. The Ritz-Carlton Naples followed in July with an escalating, tiered number of rooms available. And La Playa Beach & Golf Resort recently reopened its restaurant Baleen and has been slowly reintroducing rooms.
Both La Playa and The Ritz-Carlton could be fully open by about October, Beirnes says, along with many other Collier County hotels.
Margaritaville and Great Wolf Lodge will be huge attractions
Hotels, of course, are going to continue to be a huge economic driver in the next season or two.
In Lee County, for example, there’s the highly anticipated Margaritaville on six acres of Fort Myers Beach. That 254-room resort − expected to open by early 2024 − will significantly boost the number of available hotel rooms on Fort Myers Beach, Hamman says.
Before Ian, the Beach had 2,356 hotel rooms available, he says. Right now, there are only 608.
“It’ll be a huge increase that’ll bring the life and commerce back to Fort Myers Beach that it desperately needs,” Hamman says. “So, yeah, Margaritaville – for as controversial as Margaritaville was in the beginning – it will save tourism on Fort Myers Beach.
“And it’ll be the beacon to the rest of the country that you can come down here and travel to Fort Myers Beach again.”
A similar boost will come to Collier County when the Great Wolf Lodge opens next year, Beirnes says. He calls it a “destination attraction” with its 500 rooms, 60,000-square-foot adventure park and 90,000-square-foot indoor water park.
More hotels will be opening or reopening even sooner next season, as well, including Pink Shell Beach Resort and Diamondhead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach and Compass by Margaritaville and AC Hotel Naples in Naples, Hamman and Beirnes say.
Once those places open their doors, the tourists will come, Hamman predicts. That’s been the biggest reason they’ve stayed away.
“The driving factor behind that, I think, is only 70 percent of our hotel rooms are open,” Hamman says. “Thirty percent of our hotel rooms are still closed – and some of them might not open for quite some time, because those facilities might be completely destroyed.”
Marketing Southwest Florida to Canada, Boston and the Midwest
So there’s still a lot of recovery to do in Southwest Florida. But despite that, much of the area is already up and running and ready to greet tourists.
That’s where marketing comes in.
Tourism leaders have been busy wooing more tourists from Canada, Boston, the Midwest and other parts of the world.
Europe has traditionally been a big source of tourists, Beirnes says. Especially the United Kingdom and Germany with about 310,000 visitors to Collier County each year.
But that market has weakened thanks to high inflation in Europe, Beirnes says. That’s why he’s been refocusing his attention on Canada, with its strong economy, and running lots of print, TV and digital ads there.
“We’ve now made it our number-one international market,” he says, “and it’s exceeding all historical levels from either UK or Germany.”
Lee County has been doing its own marketing push, as well, including ads in Boston and the Midwest. That includes the “My Fort Myers” campaign that taps into previous visitors’ memories of Southwest Florida.
“We know that the vast majority of our visitors are actually repeat visitors – people who have been here. They had a great time and they want to come back,” Hamman says. “So we’re encouraging them to come back and relive their wonderful memories here and enjoy our area.”
More predictions for the Fort Myers, Naples area
Of course, it remains to be seen what kind of impact all this will have on Southwest Florida’s tourism. Both Beirnes and Hamman say they’re hopeful, but they’re managing their expectations.
“I expect next season to improve over this season,” Hamman says. “But it’ll still be down off the historic highs that we saw pre-Hurricane Ian. Just because we won’t have the same number of hotel rooms that we did before Hurricane Ian.
“But as more come online, I expect them to fill up and I expect our team to do everything we can to try and let the world know that we are open for business.”
Southwest Florida is fighting against other factors, as well, such as the economy, high gas prices and national news about things like red tide and Florida’s “unique political landscape,” Beirnes says. That includes travel advisories from the NAACP, LGBTQ groups and even the Canadian government over Florida laws aimed at LGBTQ rights and what can be taught in schools about Black history.
“These are just perceptions that we hear,” Beirnes says. “It’s not weighing in on politics, one way or another.”
Then, of course, there’s always the possibility of yet another hurricane striking Southwest Florida. That could change everything.
“Our fingers are crossed,” Beirnes says.
In the end, there are no easy answers about next season, he says. But here’s one hopeful development: Ian doesn’t seen to be on tourists’ minds as much anymore. Most seem to have forgotten about it, according to research done last season, he says.
That’s another reason Beirnes is hopeful about this coming season.
“I think that 2024 is gonna look pretty good,” he says. “I do think, though, we need to be ready to pivot, you know, and be nimble. The entire destination landscape is going to be very, very competitive.”
But looking ahead a couple years? Things should be back to normal and booming, Hamman says – especially as hotels come online and Southwest Florida’s beaches are fully renewed from ongoing renourishment projects.
“We’ll have some of the cleanest, most beautiful shoreline in the state of Florida,” Hamman says. “And some of the newest inventory of resorts in the state of Florida.
“And I think you’ll actually see us come out of this with a real boom, because we’ll probably be the newest, best destination in the state of Florida.”
— Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. To reach him, call 239-335-0368 (for tickets to shows, call the venue) or email him at email@example.com. Follow or message him on social media: Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), X (formerly Twitter) (@charlesrunnells), Threads (@crunnells1) and Instagram (@crunnells1).
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Naples, Fort Myers tourism: Ian's impact on the 2023-23 season