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Visitors return, tourism industry recovers from tough 2018

March 29, 2019

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Noah Stewart jumped aboard his fishing boat, prompting a great blue heron to fly off into the surrounding skies of paradise around it.

Stewart, a fishing captain who operates from the Port Sanibel Marina, readied his center console, 26-foot boat. He had a family of four from Winona, Minnesota, set for a six-hour expedition in the waters surrounding Sanibel Island.

His business has been booming. And it has been going well for many other businesses. The boom has been a welcome relief from the double-edged environmental crisis of toxic algae blooms and red tide that plagued Southwest Florida waterways in late July, August and September.

In recent weeks, hotels, restaurants, roads and spring training games have been packed with visitors, good news for businesses that faced plenty of bad last year.

Third-quarter visitors and visitor expenses in 2018 dipped by 2.4 and 3.4 percent from what had been a down 2017 because of Hurricane Irma, according to the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. The number of visitors fell by about 40,000 people, and tourist-based revenue fell by about $23 million.

In Collier County, unaffected by the algae blooms and less affected by the red tide, third-quarter visitors and visitor spending actually climbed from 2017 to 2018, from 306,000 to 324,600 and from $191 million to $200 million. But a look at the September statistics revealed a $16.3 million plunge in visitor spending from 2017, according to Paradise Coast, the visitor and convention bureau for Collier County.

“We were not impacted as heavily as Lee and some other Southwest Florida counties, but you can see the year over year downturn beginning in August,” said JoNell Modys, communications manager for Paradise Coast. “The drop in spending in September is indicative of visitors’ avoidance of on-water activities like boat, fishing and kayak tours/charters. Even though red tide outbreaks were primarily in northern Collier County, the negative perception factor kept people away from those activities, even in areas that had no evidence of red tide.”

Some current visitors had no idea about the environmental crisis that hit Southwest Florida late last summer, shutting down Stewart’s business for almost three months.

Others followed the calamity from afar. And they stayed away.

The 49-unit Island Inn, which opened in 1895 on Sanibel Island, dropped from its usual 100 percent occupancy as regulars like Carol McCloud of Fenwick Island, Delaware, began canceling their reservations.

As the seasonal influx of March visitors continues, McCloud and legions of others like her have been returning. The sky-is-falling pessimism of late last summer has transformed into cautious optimism, with blue water washing ashore on the Island Inn’s 550-foot stretch of beach.

“We’ve been coming here every 25 years, either for a week in November or March or both,” said McCloud of her and her late husband, John, who died last year. Welling with tears of their memories, she said she even spread some of his ashes on the beach, a place she avoided last year because of the red tide but now has embraced with it gone. “I was very aware of the red tide, and I was actually following it, because I had reservations in November.”


Chris Davison, a Cypress Lake High School and FGCU graduate and general manager of the Island Inn for the past nine years, said he is encouraged by new Gov. Ron DeSantis and his appointment of a friend and Sanibel Island resident, Chauncey Goss, to the South Florida Water Management District.

“In general, we’re cautiously optimistic,” Davison said. “People have viewed water differently. There are obviously a lot of initiatives that are moving forward.”

Davison said his inn lost about $500,000 from cancellations, early departures and lost reservations last fall.

“Now, we’re coming closer to our historical levels for these months,” he said. “But these are not the months I’m worried about. It’s going into the summer. God forbid we have another water crisis on our hands.”

Bill Waichulis, chief executive of the Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers Beach, manages a 206-room hotel that has returned to 90 percent occupancy.

“If we don’t fix this water quality, who knows?” Waichulis said. “If we have another red tide this year, it will be catastrophic for the business. It would not be good. I hope that we can fix the water quality.

“It was a horrible third quarter. Fourth quarter didn’t get good until December. But I will say business is very good. It’s probably for us on track to be one of our best years for a first quarter.”

Fourth-quarter visitors to Lee County fell by 3.4 percent, and visitor spending fell by 3.3 percent from 2017, when both of those figures rose by 2.8 and 7.9 percent from 2016.

Social media and the instant, 24/7 gratification of society has played a role in that, Waichulis said. The red tide crisis seemed like ancient history, he said, when compared to the northern polar vortex of late January.

“Things can get bad in society now, and people on social media, they see bad things every day,” Waichulis said. “Travelers are trying to get out of the cold weather right now. As long as there aren’t dead fish on the beach, they’re happy. We have no issues with red tide that I’m aware of. The water is clear, and the weather is wonderful.”


Neal Van Vliet, general manager of Junkanoo on Fort Myers Beach, reported his restaurant as packed after stinking of dead fish seven months ago.

“They cleaned up the fish quick,” Van Vliet said of Lee County cleanup crews. He said the media magnified the crisis, making it worse. “Every day, when you woke up, they’d say, ‘Not a good beach day.’ It was a real, rough, two-and-a-half months. But now, we’re better than we were a year ago. No question. Everybody in real estate says the condos are full. I’m full right now.”

Joe Kendall, a Realtor from Keller Williams, recalled being turned away by two potential homebuyers in Cape Coral last fall because of the algae-ridden canals.

Now, the problem selling houses isn’t algae, he said, but a glut of inventory and a spike in interest rates, which are still near historic lows.

“The inventory we have right now, last fall, we had the green algae and the red tide,” Kendall said. “If you were thinking about selling your house, why then? If I’m the buyer, right now, it’s a great time to buy. We have more inventory right now than we have in the past few years.”

The red tide did not impact the housing market long-term, Kendall said.

“If you were to interview 1,000 homeowners about why their house is for sale, I think you’d get a bunch of reasons,” he said. “If we had four or five years with red tide continuously like that, that’s one thing. But that we just had it last fall, I don’t see this as a historic situation.”

Stewart and fellow fishing guide David Menist did view it as a historic situation. The two guides, who do not know each other, have moved forward in different ways.

Menist has been so distraught over the water quality issues, he has continued to suspend his business from operating.

“If you want to write an article about how the water is better, you’re calling the wrong guy,” said Menist, who said he saw a dead manatee in the water recently.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission reported 20 dead manatees this January and February, a number below the 43 reported during the same time frame in 2018, 28 in 2017 and 30 in 2016.


Menist said he was convinced the “critical two inches of air,” just above the water and breathed by turtles, manatees and dolphins, remains unsafe. He will continue to fish from the height of bridges but not close to the water in a boat for fear of getting sick.

“I have not done any charters since the water went bad,” Menist said. “No way. I have lost customers. I have lost well over $100,000.

“I’ve had a tremendous career over the past 15 years. I’m financially stable enough to weather the storm for another year or two. If the water conditions were perfect, I would be out there, 100 percent.”

But for Stewart and his clients on a recent Tuesday morning, conditions were close to perfect. At least, they were for about half the outing, when a cold front made the water choppy.

Jason and Jessica Losinski and their daughters, Alexia, 16, and Breanna, 13, stayed in a nearby condominium for six nights and chartered Stewart’s boat.

They kept four mangrove snappers after trying to haul in a kingfish that escaped the hook in its mouth.

“It’s fun to come down and catch fish you’re not familiar with,” said Jason Losinski, who often ice fishes in Minnesota.

The Losinskis said they knew nothing of the historic red tide conditions of last year, so it did not factor into their decision to visit the region. Stewart filled them in during their fishing trip.

“People who were here, they will pass it on for generations,” Stewart said of the 2018 red tide, which killed massive amounts of fish, dolphins and manatees. “They’ll say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what happened.’ The whole good thing about it, was it put a lot of emphasis on water quality issues.”

For that reason, Stewart said he could only look forward. He tries to live his life like he fishes. A bad day at either wouldn’t keep him from trying again the next day, he said.

“Once you miss business, you don’t get another shot at it,” Stewart said. “You can only look forward, during that kind of stuff, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

As the Losinskis departed, a bag of ice and four filleted fish in hand, their fishing guide hoped the rest of 2019 and ensuing years follow a different script from 2018.

“That could be the story that I get to tell,” Stewart said. “That’s what I’m hoping for. If you’re a Floridian, we can all be a part of the solution.”


Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com