Gulf
STEPHEN HAYFORD, Gulfshore Life

How to Bring Tourism Back - Southwest Florida’s creative solutions for luring visitors here in tough times

The last weekend of summer vacation in Lee County—the time when families might have been enjoying one last hurrah—Fort Myers Beach was empty.

It had been that way for nearly two weeks: empty beach chairs, empty barstools, empty shop floors, but still-lingering odors from decaying fish despite the county’s massive cleanup.

Six months ago, Southwest Florida suffered a dual assault on our waters—a red tide bloom that killed thousands of tons of sea life, and in Lee County, an outbreak of freshwater algae in rivers and canals, sparking public health concerns and the attention of storied activist Erin Brockovich.  

The disaster made international news. Revenue plummeted—Fort Myers Beach businesses alone lost $34.6 million in a two-month span (and that figure excludes the big resorts). September’s bed tax dollars—a primary measure of tourism—fell 12.3 percent year over year in Lee. Sanibel and Captiva lost 16,791 scheduled bed nights during July and August. Collier’s blow was somewhat softer; still, that county found itself “guilty by association.” Would-be tourists assumed images of Sanibel’s fish-littered shore and the Caloosahatchee River’s algal slime applied equally to Marco Island and the Gordon River, neither of which was contaminated.

It’s high season now, the time of year when year-rounders get cranky over clogged roads, crowded restaurants and long lines. But after last summer’s abandonment, there’s a new longing to have guests—and their $5 billion a year in economic contributions—back.

Fighting for better water and restoring faith in our coastline has become something of a communitywide affair. But the primary responsibility for recapturing tourism falls on two entities: our convention and visitor bureaus, also known as The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel and, in Collier, Paradise Coast.

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