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Tourism in Lee County dropped 64% from April to June

By Staff | Sep 25, 2020

The number of of visitors to Lee County dropped 64% per lodging statistics in the tourism snapshot of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau’s data for April to June this year, representing the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county was hit particularly hard by travel bans from Europe, the closing of the Canadian border, restrictions on travel from other states and bans on flights from Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners approved a $300,000 funding resolution this past week for a contract with Global Communication Experts to promote Lee County tourism in the German, Austrian and Switzerland markets. According to the resolution, nearly 30% of the county’s international visitation last year came from this region.

Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau Executive Director Tamara Pigott said Global Communication Experts will be representing the bureau in those markets where it has business partnerships with major tour operators, airlines, distribution partners and industry associations. “They are our boots on the ground,” she said.

Pigott said the region is a “very strong source of visitors for us.” The airport in Dusselforf, Germany offers the only direct flights from Europe to the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. Pigott said the German-speaking countries represent the strongest segment of the international market of tourism into Lee County.

“This region is a very popular vacation destination for them,” she said. “A lot of Germans own second homes in the county.” Pigott said they enjoy the county’s coastlines and beaches. “They love the canals and the ability to go boating.”

According to Pigott, approximately half of Germans who travel to Florida visit Lee County. “They vacation primarily between August and September when our area needs visitors the most,” she said.

Tax revenue is down over 12% for the fiscal year so far from tourism from September 2019 through October 2020, Pigott said. Before the pandemic hit, tax revenue from tourism was up approximately 20%.

“Right now, people are staying home. They are not comfortable traveling. What we’re relying on now is people from within Florida who are doing staycations,” Pigott said.

In a roundtable discussion held recently in Fort Myers with restaurateurs from the region, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he has asked President Donald Trump to ease travel restrictions from places like Europe and Brazil in order to bolster tourism.

On the bright side, Pigott said the Southwest Florida International Airport will be adding a route from Los Angeles on Alaskan Airlines in November and Jet Blue will be adding daily flights from Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina.

Lee County Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Liszak said international travel is a “huge” part of business on Fort Myers Beach though this summer much of that business was supplanted by more travelers from within the state. “Restaurants are only at 50% capacity,” she noted.

Liszak said she is “guardedly optimistic” about business as the busier fall season begins. “All things considered, we are very fortunate.”

At the Lani Kai Island Resort, marketing director Melissa Schneider said the hotel has seen a “significant increase of travelers visiting from around the state, those who can make it to the beach in just a few-hours drive. And once air travel and state-wide restrictions had been somewhat lightened up, we had several of our frequent guests from around the country making quick trips for beach vacations – many of whom would choose to extend their stay once they were here with us.”

Diamondhead Beach Resort General Manager Neil Hopgood said that travelers from within Florida and the Midwest have replaced the loss of European travelers and the Canadian market.

The Canadian border will be closed through at least Oct. 31. “That will start to impact us,” Hopgood said.

Despite the international losses, Hopgood said his hotel is “going to have a record September.”

He credited the increased business from travelers who would either be going on cruises, to Mexico or to the Caribbean but who don’t want to risk doing so at this time or in the case of cruises – can’t. Hopgood said August was also a “very strong” month for the resort.

The positive business news from the hotel may run contrary to the general assumptions based on the pandemic. “There is a lot of doom and gloom that you read out there,” he said. The hotel also opened up its Cabana restaurant downstairs more by adding 10 seats to the bar following the state’s actions to open bars with 50% capacity. The hotel’s bar was previously open to those who wanted to pick up a drink and head out to the beach or the pool, or sit outside. The Coste restaurant upstairs has been closed since March 30 and is expected to open in November, Hopgood said.

“We will have a very good idea in October what the demand is going to be,” Hopgood said.