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FL - Collier County beaches continue recovery during peak tourism season

It’s spring break in Southwest Florida with tourists and seasonal visitors flocking to Collier County. Although Hurricane Ian ripped through the Gulf Coast six months ago, heavy traffic and long waits at restaurants demonstrate damage from the storm won’t deter those wanting to visit the Paradise Coast.

There is one part of the community that has yet to catch a break. Collier beaches have been littered with debris since the storm, in addition to experiencing sand loss and a red tide outbreak.  

Even with those obstacles, Collier County tourism director Paul Beirnes said tourism hasn’t been affected as harshly as many residents might have predicted. 

Beirnes and his team recently completed one of four surveys aimed at gauging how potential visitors around the country view the level of readiness of Southwest Florida to welcome back tourists. The survey, which reached more than 500 consumers during an 11-day period in mid-February, showed around 80% of potential visitors believe the region is fully ready to welcome back guests. Those 80% believe the effects of Hurricane Ian on Southwest Florida were minimal. Although locals know that to be untrue, that mindset from those who don’t live in the county shows how resilient the area is and appears to be, Beirnes said.  

“When 80% of the people think that there’s absolutely no challenge, that’s a pretty strong, resilient sentiment, believing that we’ve bounced back pretty quickly,” he said. 

The other 20% surveyed, although not quite ready to visit the region, have an optimistic outlook that the area will be fully recovered by July.

The 20% is “certainly concerning,” Beirnes said. “It will be our focus, and it’s certainly not a small amount. It’s not an enormous amount, but it’s certainly one to keep in mind.”

According to the survey, potential visitors are most confident in the readiness of restaurants compared to beaches, which one in six believe are trailing behind in recovery. 

The recent red tide outbreak in Collier is an added challenge in working to return the beaches to their pristine state from before the hurricane. Although it’s too soon to tell, Beirnes worries the attention brought to the county more recently because of red tide could have an impact on tourism numbers. 

Historically, red tide outbreaks occur after water from Lake Okeechobee is released to one of three outlets, one being the Caloosahatchee River. Red tide, a naturally occurring algae, feeds off the blue-green algae in the water runoff caused by fertilizers and other artificial substances, which causes it to grow rapidly. 
“Regrettably, the red tide affected us and it affected us quickly, and we were faced with a pretty Herculean task in removing the dead fish and other aquatic life,” Naples City Manger Jay Boodheshwar said.

Since the red tide outbreak started around a month ago, Naples city staff had to redirect its attention to beach cleanup rather than beach restoration. So far, more than 15,000 pounds of dead sea life have been removed from the beach by hand. The city also paid $58,000 to a contractor to help with the cleanup effort where almost 23,000 pounds of dead fish and other animals were collected from waterways.

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