Best case, the Labor Day weekend brings a welcome three-day splash of visitor spending in Southwest Florida during what’s often the slowest month for tourism.
It’s a respite from the more-languid business pace of late summer, which prompted some wag to call the month of September, “Death-tember.”
But this holiday weekend isn’t looking like a best case: Far from it.
Reports of toxic algal blooms – chiefly red tide and blue-green algae – continue to make national news headlines and social media, keeping some visitors away.
Red tide has been worse than usual this year, plaguing Collier and Lee counties, killing off fish and stinking up the air.
On top of that, Lee is still cleaning up the toxic blue-green algae tied to Lake Okeechobee discharges. The algae has invaded the Caloosahatchee River and its canals.
Collier County might be at less of a disadvantage, but even there, optimism for a strong September is muted at best.
For the rest of the month – at least – visitor perceptions of an algae-choked environment are likely to hold sway.
And, that’s toxic for tourism and hospitality, a lifeblood industry that has an estimated $4.5 billion annual impact and employs about one in five residents in Lee and Collier counties alone.
To be sure, there are pockets of optimism in Collier.
And in Lee, at least one big waterfront hotel off the Gulf anticipates having a record September.
But those are exceptions.
At the Pink Shell on Fort Myers Beach, bookings for this weekend are trending in the 70 percent range, rather than the 90 percent or higher that’s typical for the holiday weekend, said Bill Waichulis, resort chief executive.
Waichulis estimates that, for this time of year, business at Beach hotels overall is off 25 to 35 percent.
Few hotel guests creates trickle-down effect
“Things are not going to be good for hotels during the month of September,” he said.
The hotels’ visitor loss “trickles down to restaurants, gift shops, taxi drivers,” Waichulis added.
Waichulis dares to hope that “things turn around by late October, early November.
“Worst case, it carries into the first quarter of next year,” he said.
“We’re hoping for a good weekend,” said David Kastan, marketing director for Salty Sam’s Waterfront Adventures on Estero Bay, which is home to a marina, two restaurants, a pirate cruise and more.
More: Is it safe to visit?
“It’s a slow time of year, but the carpet was yanked out from under us a couple of weeks early,” Kastan said of the impact from the region’s water quality woes.
Kastan said it’s very rare for dead fish to wash up at the property, but in the next breath mentioned the “Fish Kill” cocktail Parrot Key Caribbean Grill concocted, which got national attention in USA TODAY.
It’s a tequila-and liqueur mix with a floater of candy fish. All proceeds go to Captains for Clean Water, a nonprofit organization seeking solutions to estuary water quality problems stemming from Lake Okeechobee discharges.
Regionally, boating – and especially paddling – has taken a big hit.
“Everyone’s feeling the crunch,” said John Paeno, owner of CGT Kayaks in Bonita Springs.
“Red tide (is) killing our business,” reads the subject line in a recent email to state and local government leaders from Paeno, whose business offers tours and sells paddlecraft.
The business sits along the Imperial River, which is “clear” of harmful algae. However, many of its tour destinations in Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound or Charlotte Harbor are not, Paeno said.
Paddle boarding has ‘basically died’
As of Tuesday, Paeno had no tour reservations for the holiday weekend, adding that:
“Paddle boarding has basically died. I have a room full of paddleboards I cannot sell.”
Billy Norris, owner of Pale Horse Fishing Charters in Bonita Springs and North Naples, said the algae blooms have killed his business too. He’s run one charter this month and the customers complained the fish they caught tasted terrible.
Norris said he has to run five trips in a month just to break even.
“I took a huge hit this August. It was really bad,” he said.
He doesn’t expect the situation for charter boat captains to get better anytime soon, with so many fish killed by the algae blooms.
“It’s going to be a long winter. We rely on the tourist season to get by. I think a lot of companies are going to go out of business this year,” Norris said.
Susan and Shane Chaplin, who own the Sweet Liberty catamaran in Naples offering cruises and private charters, shut their business down earlier than usual this year to do annual maintenance on their boat because they weren’t getting many calls anyway.
Usually, they close for a few weeks after Labor Day, but they didn’t expect to see any business this holiday weekend, she said.
Nearly half of their trips are to Keewaydin Island and it has been riddled with dead fish, and nobody seems to be cleaning it up, Chaplin said.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “The breathing is horrible.”
“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” she added. “There is nothing we can do.”
Chaplin said she just hopes by the time the business reopens in October the situation will improve.
Hyatt resort expects best September ever
And yet, in northern Bonita Springs, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa is sold out for the Labor Day weekend, and “expecting the best September we’ve ever had,” said Brian Kramer, general manager.
He credited not only holiday weekend bookings from leisure travelers, but also from business groups and associations for the rest of the month.
Geography could be why the Hyatt is seeing fewer business losses from red tide.
“We’re in our own little cocoon, not directly on the beach,” Kramer noted.
The resort is along Estero Bay, and offers guests a free shuttle to a private beach on Big Hickory Island that the resort shares with a residential community on the mainland.
The bay has not been spared red tide, but the Hyatt’s beach has been relatively unscathed.
“The way the tide goes and jetties surround our beach, it really insulates us,” Kramer said.
He noted it also helps to have a lazy river and a trio of water slides around the resort’s swimming pool.
“We still warn people there’s red tide in the area,” Kramer added.
More than one hotelier said “staycations” could bring much-needed income to the tourism-reliant economy.
On Sanibel Island, “we hope locals and regionals will fill in our gaps,” said Chris Davison, vice president of operations at historic Island Inn.
“We voluntarily dropped our rates because of what’s going on,” Davison said.
In Cape Coral, The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village isn’t on the Gulf shore, “but a lot of our guests come to experience Southwest Florida beaches,” said General Manager Michael Tighe.
The water taxi service that shuttles guests to Fort Myers Beach occasionally has been grounded “because of the environment,” Tighe said, adding: “It’s hit or miss: That’s the frustrating thing.”
Inquiries and room reservations are trending lower compared with last year, Tighe said, something he attributes to the red tide and blue-green algae crisis.
However, he said October and November “are going to be awesome months for group bookings.”
The Westin opened a 30,000-square-foot meeting and events center in January.
In Collier County, Jason Parsons, general manager of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, said he expects to end the long holiday weekend about 20 percent behind — maybe more.
“Our numbers are down,” he said. “I know that can be attributed to the red tide. No doubt about it.”
In early August, red tide fouled the water near his hotel for about 10 days straight. Since then beach conditions have been much better, at least in his backyard.
However, it has been hard for the hotel to get the word out, especially when out-of-towners are watching the national news and don’t understand that red tide comes and goes with the direction of the wind and strength of the tides and it isn’t everywhere in Southwest Florida — and that blue-green algae isn’t in Naples at all.
“I never thought our beach webcam would be so important,” Parsons said. “Really, we refer people to that all the time.”
The Naples Beach Hotel saw less traffic this summer.
“We’ve had cancellations,” Parsons said. “We haven’t had any massive group of rooms cancelled, which I’m sure Sanibel and Captiva have had. We’ve had one group leave Sanibel and come to our hotel.”
After surveying members this week, Randy Smith, president of the Collier County Lodging & Tourism Alliance, said some reported no harm from red tide, especially on Marco Island, where they’ve not seen the algae blooms and have promoted that fact heavily.
“Collier hotels are also getting reservations from people that were staying in Lee County but decided to move south and away from the major red tide issues,” Smith said. “But Naples hotels are also seeing people check out early if red tide has been heavy while they were here.”
The local tourism industry, he said, is growing increasingly frustrated by the inaction on the water problems.
Marco Marriott: Bookings strong for season
Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, said her property has seen no visible impact from red tide, with only one or two days the entire season when guests have complained of mild respiratory irritation. The resort is sold out for the Labor Day weekend.
“Our summer occupancies overall have been almost 80 percent, exceeding past years,” she said.
The booking pace for season is stronger than usual, Cox said.
“We are taking a lot of guest calls due to the national news coverage red tide has received,” she said “Fortunately, we are able to direct our guests to our web cameras, social media feeds and TripAdvisor accounts where they can see for themselves the live guest experience on our beautiful beaches. So those calls and inquiries haven’t translated into a loss of business.”
Some tourist attractions in Collier aren’t seeing much impact from the red tide either because they aren’t near the water, or they’re luring more visitors because the beaches aren’t as desirable.
“If anything we’ve had a slight uptick in visitors because people can’t go to the beach. You go to the beach right now and it’s empty. It’s sad,” said Steve Parker, volunteer and communications coordinator at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, about 30 minutes east of Naples.
The 13,000-acre preserve is open 365 days a year, weather permitting, and it offers a free guided tour along its boardwalk on most days of the week, starting at 9:30 a.m.
Looking ahead to the busier season, Parker expects the usual crowds this winter.
“In the summer on a really hot day, we may get dozens of people,” he said. “In the winter we may get thousands of people out here in a day.”
Courtney Jolly Goff, director of marketing and public relations at Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, said attendance for June, July and August is up 20 percent over last year, but that’s close to the average for the past eight years.
“Like many local organizations, we are concerned that the busy tourist season might be affected by the red tide,” she said. “Approximately 40 percent of the zoo’s guests identify themselves as out-of-state visitors.”
Florida’s algae crisis: Cape Coral company gets green light for pilot algae project
Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director, said August has been an unusually busy month for his organization, having to deal with all the bad publicity, questions and concerns that come with red tide.
“If there is any good news from this unusual month, it is that our area was the least impacted by red tide or other algae blooms,” he said. “Our neighbors to the north are dealing with many more cancellations, struggling businesses and dramatic and often negative coverage by the national media.”
The latest tourism numbers don’t show any negative impacts from red tide in Collier, but they’re for July before the toxic bloom became a big problem again in the county.
The closing of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples on the beach, which has been under renovation, had a bigger effect than red tide, Wert said. The resort reopens Monday.
“We have not seen a dip in spending,” Wert said. “We have not seen a dip in overall visitor numbers either. It’s pretty level with last year.”
The county saw 135,700 visitors in July, up .4 percent from 135,159 a year ago.
Also last month: The average daily rate rose 6.7 percent to $164.40 and occupancy grew 5 percent to 76.2 percent over the year.
Lee County tourism reports its visitor statistics quarterly. The latest report covered only through spring.
BBB reports spike in red tide-related complaints
Over the past month the Better Business Bureau serving West Florida, including Lee and Collier counties, has seen a spike in complaints against resorts, hotels and other vacation rental companies due to red tide.
Consumers have complained about problems with cancellations and about companies not disclosing red tide. In all the bureau has received 11 complaints — and many more calls from consumers with questions about their rights, said Bryan Oglesby, the bureau’s director of public relations and outreach.
“According to Florida law, they are not required to give refunds,” he explained. “It’s really dependent on that hotel’s or vacation property’s rules. It’s their choice. It’s their rules.”
The BBB encourages anyone with a gripe to try to work it out with the business first, saying his group should be the last resort when attempting to resolve a dispute with a hotelier or other vacation rental business.
“What we find is that most businesses want to work with their customers,” Oglesby said.
The region’s tourist-centric businesses yearn for the drier, cooler weather of late fall.
That’s when the blue-green algae is most likely to dissipate. Red tide, however, has been known to break out in November. And the current case has been around since last October.
If the nasty algal blooms do disappear by winter, the region has a chance for a solid high season.
At least one long-term forecast bodes well for Southwest Florida.
Days after The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast a warm, wet winter, the other Farmers’ Almanac this week predicted “teeth-chattering cold” ahead for the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and New England – all big feeder markets for local tourism.
At the Westin In Cape Coral, Tighe reflected on the sunny side of life as a Southwest Florida hotelier.
“I walk my property two to three times a day,” Tighe said, adding:
“Sometimes I feel blessed to work here, because the environment is so beautiful.”
Hitting the road
Floridians, start your engines!
The great Labor Day Weekend travel getaways are off and running.
Some things to keep in mind:
•Gas will cost you more: The auto club AAA reports regular unleaded was fetching an average of $2.79 a gallon Friday in Lee County. That’s up from about $2.39 a year ago. Collier County’s gasoline prices averaged to $2.85 a gallon Friday, up from $2.42 a year ago.
•Road work will be at a minimum. Most contractors will not work on state or federal highways over the holiday weekend. They need prior approval to do so.
•The Florida Department of Transportation said no lane closures or lane shifts will be allowed on state roads from Friday through Monday.
•For more about Florida state road conditions, dial 511 on your phone, download a FL511 app for your cellphone for free, log into the FL511.com website or sign up for an fl511 Twitter feed.
For example on Twitter, to get details on road conditions on Interstate 75, follow @fl511_I-75.
Just swap out interstate numbers to learn about other Florida-maintained thoroughfares.
What local beaches are your best bet?
A bloom of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis, persists in Southwest Florida and currently extends along roughly 145 miles of coastline, according to Wednesday’s status report from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
However, concentrations are patchy in nature and levels of respiratory irritation will vary locally based upon nearby bloom concentrations, ocean currents, and wind speed and direction.
That FWC midweek status report shows medium to high concentrations of red tide cells for much of the Gulf Coast, from Pinellas County south through northern Collier County.
For the holiday weekend, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts low concentrations of red tide along the Gulf beaches in northern and southern portions of Charlotte Lee and Collier counties.
Sadly, these reports don’t identify beaches by name.
And, if you have chronic lung problems, even a low concentration of red tide could be harmful.
Some online resources to help you decide include:
•The FWC’s statewide red tide status reports, which are typically updated every Wednesday and Friday afternoon: myfwc.com/redtidestatus
•Mote’s Beach Conditions Reporting System, which provides shoreline observations as often as twice daily: visitbeaches.org
•The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides forecasts of potential respiratory irritation: http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/hab/
Where to find free beach parking
Fort Myers Beach
Through Sept. 10:
On-street, metered parking spots across town.
Parking lots at Lynn Hall Beach Park and Bowditch Point Park.
Parking fees waived at all beach lots until further notice.
Parking fees waived at Alison Hagerup Beach Park through Sept. 10.
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