SWFL tourism industry slowly reopens; expert says comeback not far off

Reporter: Morgan Rynor Writer: Jack Lowenstein

People are back out on the beach. But that doesn’t mean tourists are heading to Southwest Florida to soak up the sun just yet. Tourism officials say getting back to pre-pandemic numbers in our state could take years.

Tourism businesses in Southwest Florida continue to follow safety practices, as it continues to slowly reopen Friday. And an expert we spoke to believes the industry could make a comeback much sooner than other might project.

It was not a typical Florida beach day in May but a huge improvement from a week ago when the beaches were still empty.

“This all occurred during a very busy time of the year,” said Melissa Schneider, the marketing director at Lani Kai Island resort on Fort Myers Beach. “But it’s something that you have to accept because it’s safety first.”

Lani Kai  says it’s going to weather the crisis, especially now that the town is allowing hotels to book reservations starting May 15.

“Our front desk was inundated with calls as soon as that May 15 date was announced for people wanting to book,” Schneider said.

But state tourism and marketing officials fear it could take years for all of Florida to recover.

“I disagree,” said John Silvia, a former chief economist for Wells Fargo. “They certainly underestimate the value of sunshine.”

Silvia told us people are itching to travel, even if just by car.

“I don’t think it will take years to recover,” Silvia said.

It’s welcome news for Commissioner Brian Hamman, who says 20% of the local economy is based on tourism.

“One out of every five jobs in Lee County is in the tourism industry,” Hamman said.

Lee County hired a consulting firm to find out if people plan to travel at some point this year and where. While a majority said they will not take a trip, 29% percent of those who did said they want to hit the beach, which is good news for Southwest Florida.

Hamman says, from hotel taxes alone, the county lost millions of dollars in the last six weeks. But he’s also hopeful.

“We’ve lived through the blue-green algae and the red tide crisis,” Hamman said. “And we’ve even lived through hurricanes, and our tourism industry has bounced back every single time.”

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