With US travel ban lifted, Southwest Florida is seeing more international visitors

Foreign visitors aren't exactly flocking to Southwest Florida.

The region, however, is seeing more of them, with the easing of COVID-related travel restrictions in the United States late last year.

You'll likely notice the visitors while eating out, shopping or walking on the beach, speaking in German, British or maybe even French Canadian.

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In November, the U.S. lifted its travel ban from 33 countries, including the United Kingdom — one of Southwest Florida's top feeder markets for foreign travelers.

Foreigners still must provide proof they're fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can travel to the U.S. by air, but no longer have to show a negative test result for the virus before boarding their flight.

The Centers for Disease Control rescinded the testing requirement about two months ago, making travel easier.

Visitation up

Visitation from abroad was too small to measure last June in Manatee County. But this summer, foreign tourists started to make their way back to the Bradenton area.

Manatee County saw 4,090 visitors from Europe in June, and 980 from Canada, according to data provided by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Canadian visitation was up compared to 2019, when 620 visitors came from Canada to Manatee County, but European visitation was down compared to the 14,320 who visited three years before.

Sarasota County's numbers are also behind 2019. In June, 2,550 Canadians visited Sarasota, compared to 4,620 in June 2019. European visitation was also down, from 8,350 in June 2019 to 2,540 two months ago.

Southwest Florida saw its in-state visitation soar after the coronavirus outbreak, with more travelers staying closer to home in 2020 and 2021. That trend continues to fade, as international visitation picks up.

"International visitation is continuing to grow and is expected to not only continue but also increase as we move into the fall. By the time the international borders reopened in November 2021, the surge in domestic travels had elevated the average daily rate, as well as absorbed the majority of occupancy for the winter peak season. As a result, many potential international travelers were forced or opted to postpone travels," said Paul Beirnes, Collier County's tourism director.

In more recent months, daily rates in the county have begun to "normalize," he said, becoming more favorable to international travelers.

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

Europe leads the way

When it comes to international visitation, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada are Southwest Florida's top feeder markets. Eurowings is a big contributor to that business, offering nonstop service between Frankfurt, Germany, and Southwest Florida International Airport.

In June, 6.6% of Collier's visitors came from Europe, 4.4% from Canada and 2.8% from Latin America, said Beirnes, who serves as the executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"It is anticipated that International travel will continue to grow as that market will book in advance in an effort to avoid disappointment or narrow occupancy for another year," Beirnes said.

While these are challenging economic times around the globe, he said, Collier's marketing strategies remain "nimble," allowing it to more easily switch gears if needed to continue attracting ready, willing and able tourists — wherever they may be.

"We consistently work with Visit Florida, as well as Brand USA, on efforts internationally," Beirnes said.

Brand USA's mission is to increase international visitation, spend and market share to "fuel the nation's economy and enhance the image of the USA worldwide."

International flights resume

There weren't any international flights into Southwest Florida International from mid-March 2020 through late 2021, due to travel restrictions in the U.S. and other countries.

Since then Air Canada and WestJet have resumed nonstop flights between Fort Myers and Canada. While some flights are offered year-round, others are only seasonal, so they don't operate in the summer.

Flights from Germany restarted in late March of this year.

In fiscal 2019, Southwest Florida International saw 373,752 passengers fly in on Air Canada, Air Canada Rouge, Westjet and Eurowings. That compares to just 22,936 last year — and 190,984 this year (from October to June).

Canadians Amanda and Mark Parlee, who are in their late 50s, can't wait to get back down here. They're not exactly tourists, as they own a part-time home in Cape Coral and a local boutique, but they're illustrative of their countrymen's strong desire to be in Southwest Florida.

Amanda complained that Canada has been so much more stringent with its COVID-related restrictions, and much slower to lift them, unlike in Florida, where the governor moved quickly to reopen the state for business after a brief lockdown.

"Here I think people are more afraid," she said. "Definitely, the media has put a spin on things here, It has definitely made more people anxious and afraid."

Because they're so afraid, many Canadians are still wearing masks on outings, she said, even her own friends when they go out to dinner together.

"I'm not saying it's like the Wild West there. It's just much nicer vibes," Amanda said.

The Parlees have visited Southwest Florida a few times since the pandemic hit. They plan to drive down next month and stay for a week or two, then go back to Canada, before returning here for the winter.

"Our Canadian friends, they've all returned to Southwest Florida, and everyone is just continuing to go back and forth," Amanda said.

Local hoteliers have noticed more international visitors of late.

"We are seeing an uptick from Canada and Germany. The U.K. is still lagging behind a little," said Brian Kramer, general manager at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs.

"The second quarter of this year was the biggest jump in visitation, but we see it starting to soften a little again for the last half of the year. We are not back to pre-COVID levels, but we are starting to make gains in international travel," he said.

It's especially nice to see international guests at the resort this time of year, outside of the busy season, Kramer said.

"While domestic travel is the lion's share of our business, we do rely on international visitation to complement our slower seasons. It is good to see it starting to rebound," he said.

Bill Waichulis, a senior vice president of operations for Boykin Hospitality Management, who oversees the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach, said he's also seen an increase in international business at his property.

"International travel is about 10% of our business. So it's not a huge part," he said.

Cash Corcoran, 11, slides down a water slide at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort And Spa on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 in Naples, Fla.

This year, it will be less, despite the recent uptick.

While most of the resort's international business comes from the U.K. and Germany, it also lures visitors from Canada, as well as such places as Holland. Most of the business comes through wholesalers, such as Virgin Holidays, that sell vacation packages, with airfare, hotel and car rental included, Waichulis said.

"We see the bookings coming in," he said. "We are seeing more of the bookings for 2023, at least 12 months out."

Guests sit under yellow umbrellas in front of Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach on Friday, June 26, 2020. Pink Shell general manager Bill Waichulis said that an uptick in out of state visitors is filling much of the gap in business left by the "non-existent" European tourism this summer.

Staying longer

International visitors with plans to visit in 2023 are booking longer than usual stays, likely because they haven't traveled so far in a while, Waichulis said. So instead of a week, they might stay for 10 days in Southwest Florida.

Over the next few months, many of the resort's international guests will be journalists, bloggers and other influencers, or tour operators, on familiarization trips, or low-cost educational trips designed to teach them about the destination and to generate new business.

With international bookings coming in stronger for 2023, due to pent-up demand, they could account for slightly more than 10% of Pink Shell's business next year, Waichulis said.

Typically, he said, the resort sees most of its international visitors from September to December.

"We don't see a lot of them January through April because the prices are so high, with domestic travelers wanting to get down here for the winter," Waichulis said.

While rates have dropped a bit over the past few months, they're still higher than usual for this time of year in Southwest Florida.

Travel demand in the U.S. has slowed, due to many factors, including inflation, stock market jitters and airline woes, Waichulis said.

Still, he said, business is currently on par with last year, the resort's best year ever.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: SW FL is attracting more international tourists