It seems as though discussions about tourism returning to Florida have centered mostly on Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, the two major theme parks in Orlando.
And that’s fair.
After all, WDW and Universal are among the biggest attractions in the world. And, as such, all eyes have been on the two parks—including from industry leaders of other tourist destinations—to dictate the course of action in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But Florida is much more than just the House of Mouse or the home of Harry Potter.
The state’s beaches, hotels and other attractions have slowly begun to reopen and are showing signs of life from what can only be described as the devastating effects of COVID-19.
The numbers don’t lie.
For the week ending February 23, 2020, Florida’s hotel revenue was running $33.9 million ahead of what it made last year at the same time, according to Visit Florida. A month later, for the week ending March 22—little more than 10 days after Major League Baseball’s spring training closed down, the state’s four combined National Basketball Association and National Hockey League franchises stopped playing, and the annual beach bacchanalia known as spring break was halted—hotel revenue was at its lowest point, down $461 million compared to the same time period in 2019.
So where does Florida tourism stand at the moment?
Let’s just say that it’s low tide right now with the hopes that high tide will shortly come roaring in.
If it’s one thing Florida has, it’s spectacular beaches. While the east coast of Florida has easily identifiable names like Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, the western side of the state on the Gulf of Mexico features peaceful, tranquil, amazing beaches such as Siesta Key outside Sarasota and Sanibel Island off of Fort Myers.
Research by Visit Sarasota County and The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel shows that right now, consumers who are willing to travel are looking for beaches and other uncrowded areas within reasonable driving distance of their homes. The key is short, quick getaways, said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.
“A lot of what we’re seeing right now tends to be very close to home,” Haley said.
While most of Florida’s beaches in virtually every part of the start are open, other parts aren’t just yet. You can bike or drive through Sanibel’s famed J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, but the area’s buildings are closed and you can’t walk through the preserve.
Social distancing at the beach is, of course, encouraged. Practiced? Not so much, but they are trying.
At the moment, per the orders of Gov. Ron DeSantis, restrictions remain in place on visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Tourists from those states must quarantine for a period of 14 days or however long their visit is if it’s two weeks or less, whatever is shortest.
Florida might not have to worry about that for a few more weeks or months though, Haley said.
“I think disposable income is going to hold back travel and tourism probably into all of 2021,” Haley said. “Even if you’re lucky enough to still have a job, there’s a good chance you’ve had a pay cut. Travel and tourism have huge unemployment, but you see huge cutbacks in all kinds of industries. Disposable income is going to be a big challenge for people.”
Also missing from that equation? International tourists.
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said visitors from Europe are so important that Manatee County has maintained a public relations office in the United Kingdom even through the pandemic.
“To maintain the UK office is going to cost us $50,000 to $60,000 between now and the end of the calendar year. I believe it’s money well spent, even if it doesn’t recover until the fall or 12 months from now,” Falcione said. “They need to know that we’re serious and helping us stay top of mind with customers is paramount to us.”
Attractions have reopened for the most part, albeit with capacity restrictions. The Kennedy Space Center in Cocoa Beach, for example, reopened on May 28 with limited attendance—encouraging advance daily admission purchases—and provisions in place that include requiring face coverings for employees and guests, temperature screenings of all employees and guests prior to entry, a reduction in operating hours to allow more time for cleaning and sanitizing, and implementing social distancing practices.
The Space Center did lower daily admission prices to $29.99 plus tax for adults and $24.99 plus tax for children during this initial reopening. In addition to admission to the visitor complex, guests will receive a complimentary admission ticket valid for use beginning January 1, 2021, through December 25, 2021, which will be provided upon arrival to the visitor complex.
SeaWorld is expected to reopen on June 11. Disney is set to open the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11 and reopen Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, a checkpoint intended to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting access to the Florida Keys was lifted after two months on Monday. The Key West Chamber of Commerce said on its website that lodging will be limited to 50 percent of standard occupancy for the beginning stages of reopening.
One of the big attractions in the Keys, the open-air interactive aquarium Theater of the Sea, located in Islamorada, reopened its dolphin, sea turtle and shark programs on June 1. Rachel Moss, assistant curator, said interactions will be kept to one family/friend group per program. Space is limited and visitors are urged to call or book online.
The state is doing what it can to help.
In the northeast part of Florida, St. John’s County—home to the nation’s oldest settlement, St. Augustine, founded in 1565—the Industrial Development Authority has awarded a total of $170,000 to 34 local small businesses. It’s all part of a potential $2 million in awards as part of recovery plans from the coronavirus pandemic for an area heavily reliant on tourists who visit St. Augustine’s beaches, visit its Spanish forts, eat at its restaurants and wander its museums.
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