How one Florida county is coping with tourism hit by Hurricane Ian

quick take

“However, what Hurricane Ian could not remove is our resilience.” Those are the hopeful words of a tourism official in Lee County along Florida’s Gulf Coast. flourishing tourist trade.

Dawit Habtemariam

Hurricane Ian caused destruction in numerous destinations in Florida and Cuba last month and its devastating aftermath is expected to be felt for months or even years. Many of them have avoided the worst. Lee County is a Florida destination that was hit by the hurricane at its most intense. The community is conducting search and rescue and damage assessments, but it is already clear that its tourism sector will face a difficult road to recovery.

The tropical storm, which formed in the Caribbean Sea, became a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall in the province of Pinar del Río, in western Cuba, on September 27. Large segments of the island lost power and 50,000 people were evacuated from the province, according to Sarah Arizaga, sales and marketing manager for Cuban Adventures, a tour operator.

On September 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall again as a Category 4 in Lee County, which is located on the southwest coast of Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. “The main impact area really was in Lee County,” said Geoff Luebkemann, an emergency officer with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA). “Fort Myers Beach was kind of ground zero for impact.”

Lee County is home to 760,000 people and includes Sanibel Island, Pine Island, and 13 other barrier islands off the Florida coast. Fort Myers is the county seat. Each year, Lee attracts five million visitors and spends $3 billion, according to the Lee County Convention and Visitors Bureau (VCB). The county’s beaches are one of its most popular attractions.

Boardwalk leading to Beachouse Lodge in Lee County, Florida. Photo credit: Ryan E. Block

Lee County hotels were inundated by heavy rain, high winds and flooding. “We have several hotels in the area where the buildings are still in good shape and habitable, but there is no electricity or water,” FRLA’s Luebkemann said. “There are other buildings that were near the water that sustained catastrophic water damage, storm surge flooding, and/or wind damage.”

During the week of the hurricane, room inventory in the Fort Myer hotel market fell 45 percent, according to STR. About 6,000 rooms were removed from the inventory.

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Many short-term vacation rental properties on the islands were removed. “In Sanibel, anything that was at ground level, like our personal home, had a water rise of more than four feet inside, at a minimum,” said Ryan E Block, Sannibel resident and vice president of Dream Vacation Rentals. , which includes 130 vacations. rentals on Sanibel Island and Captiva Island. “There are resorts that have been there like Waterside Inn, Shalimar Cottages & Motel, Island Inn, Seaside Inn, ground level cottages…they are gone.”

Several parts of the Sanibel Causeway, a series of bridges connecting the mainland to Sanibel Island, and the Matlacha Pass Bridge, which connects Pine Island to the mainland, have been destroyed, according to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

“The big problem for us is that we have a major bridge from Fort Myers that would connect to Sanibel,” Block said. “The bridge sections are there, but the causeway connecting the island is washed out.” Residents have to use boats to get in and out of the islands, according to Block.

Sanibel Marina. Photo credit: Ryan E. Block

As Hurricane Ian moved from the interior southwest to the northeast, its intensity decreased. On September 29, Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm on September 29 while moving through Florida, according to the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service. Some areas, such as Lake Wales in central Florida, experienced extreme rainfall. Orlando experienced historic flooding.

The death toll currently stands at more than 100 people, making it the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. Total estimated damage will be between $28 billion and $47 billion for all commercial and residential property in Florida. , making it the costliest hurricane since 1992.

Visit Tampa, Visit Orlando and other top destinations are welcoming visitors. In an update on the hurricane situation, Visit St. Augustine reported that many of its restaurants, shops, and attractions reopened on September 30.

However, tourism in Lee County remains at a standstill. “Visitors are asked to suspend travel plans to the region for the time being. Given the magnitude of the devastation, there is still no timetable for the resumption of tourism,” the LCVB said in an official statement.

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Federal, state, and local officials, as well as tourism industry stakeholders, are still investigating and assessing the full impact of the hurricane. “It will be at least a week or two before we get a good look at the long-term damage assessment of that market’s inventory,” FRLA’s Luebkemann said. Communities are focused on search and rescue right now.

At the moment, Lee County’s road to recovery looks challenging. “The impediment to normality is the physical infrastructure, literally building things,” FRLA’s Luebkemann said. As long as Sanibel and the Matlacha Pass bridge remain unusable, tourism in the area will not be able to resume.

Some vacation rentals are exiting the tourist market. “There is not going to be a tourism sector on these islands,” said Block of Dream Vacation Rentals. “Right now we are transitioning to become more of a property manager rather than just doing the rentals, being the landlords boots on the ground. Booting everything up and then rebuilding. That’s what we’re going to transition to. It’s certainly not as fruitful as the vacation industry, but we hope it will keep us there and provide a bridge to the other side.”

Another long-term challenge will be the return of employees from the tourism sector. Before the hurricane, one in five people worked in tourism in Lee County, according to the LCVB. Florida was already experiencing a labor shortage when the hurricane hit, according to FRLA’s Luebkemann. The loss of employees, many of whom lost their homes as well as their jobs, will make recovery difficult.

“In the best case scenario, those people stay there and find alternative employment as part of the response and rebuilding effort,” Luebkemann said. “Those people are in the market and they return to hospitality.”

Lee County tourism stakeholders are confident that they will get through this catastrophe. “Our homes, our communities, our livelihoods have been dealt a devastating blow,” said Lee County District 2 Commissioner and Lee County Tourism Development Council Chairman Cecil Pendergrass. “However, what Hurricane Ian could not remove is our resilience.”

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