Et is the sight of the bridge to Sanibel Island that Carol Dover cannot forget. How storm and water masses destroyed the concrete structure, with Herculean forces, as if the concrete pillars and steel structures were toy parts. The only land connection to the tourist island has been broken or washed away in four places. “People are experiencing sheer devastation and a lot of pain,” says the president of Florida’s Hotel and Restaurant Association. She’s talking on the phone, sitting in the car on the way from the association’s headquarters in Tallahassee, northwest Florida, to the southwest coast — to where Hurricane Ian, with a magnitude of four, caused the most destruction at the end of September.
The instructions from the city of Fort Myers Beach show how badly the Lee County district was hit. Only last weekend, almost two weeks after the hurricane, were residents officially allowed to return to their homes, shops, hotels and businesses. The city’s website states: “There is no electricity, no water or sewage system and no garbage disposal. Internet and cell phone are not working as usual. Many buildings have been destroyed.” In addition, there is neither food nor water. Gov. Ron DeSantis said in the days after the storm that Fort Myers Beach “doesn’t exist anymore.” The same applies to Sanibel Island. Lee County claimed more than half of the more than 120 fatalities from the Florida hurricane.
The Fort Myers Tourism Agency is asking visitors to “put their travel plans to the region on hold for the time being.” So far, no one wants to predict when tourism in the southwest can resume. The marketing agency “Visit Florida” continues to advertise the other regions and the hundreds of kilometers of undamaged sandy beaches: “You could be here”, is written above the photo on the website, in which a couple is holding hands in a turquoise blue sea, in front of them Child with pink swimming ring. About 122 million people visited Florida last year, according to the agency’s estimate; they now have the east coast in particular. A comparison with Germany makes it clear how crucial tourism is for the American state: For the entire pre-pandemic year 2019, the Federal Statistical Office counted almost 191 million guests in German accommodation.
Before the industry recovered, the next blow came
As recently as February, the Florida government boasted higher tourist numbers than before the pandemic; between October and December last year it was 30.8 million. They were almost all Americans – many of them may have chosen the state in 2021 because of the looser corona rules. In contrast, only 1.5 million visitors came from overseas in the fourth quarter, 42 percent fewer than in this period before the pandemic. So before the industry recovered, the next blow came in Ian.
The broadcaster CBS recently quoted an expert from Enki Research, a company that estimates the effects of natural disasters: The tourism industry must expect losses of up to eight billion dollars – ten percent of total sales. The damage relates to the immediate destruction and the tourists who stayed away. But at least the theme parks and three cruise ports near Ian’s epicenter, which draw millions of tourists, were able to resume operations after a two-day hiatus. The last airport to reopen was Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers, which also has flights from Germany.
But is it appropriate to start talking about vacations when many in the Southwest still lack the bare essentials? Hotel and gastronomy association boss Dover thinks: Yes, with a sure instinct. Your employees drive around, listen, help where they can. “Our job now is to get this industry back on its feet.” Lee County vacationed 4.6 million people last year, according to the county’s tourism board. Almost 70,000 worked in the industry, which brought in $ 3.7 billion. It will be years before such figures are written again.
However, hoteliers and restaurateurs tried to see the positive in all the misfortune, says the head of the Dover association. “It’s not our first challenge here in Florida.” After 27 years at the helm of the association, she knows what she’s talking about. “This is the price we have to pay to live in paradise.” Many hotels are apologizing to their guests on their websites and social media. Beach webcams have been turned off, entire computer systems have been washed away, and in some cases the building is no longer standing. But there is also an opportunity, says Dover. Houses that were built according to old building codes suffered the most severe destruction. Experts and the association’s chairman are certain that such a natural disaster could be less severe next time. “We learn from every storm.”