Wendie Vestfall

Charlotte County Tourism Director Wendie Vestfall said the county has submitted its plan to the state to let private vacation rentals reopen.

Charlotte County was looking at a banner year in tourism when the coronavirus pandemic started to snowball in mid-March, Tourism Director Wendie Vestfall said Thursday in a webinar for area businesses.

Vestfall mixed some good news about future travel with her bad news about the last few months.

Charlotte County revenues from the so-called bed tax were up 30.8% in January compared to last year, and 28% in February, Vestfall said. Then, in March, the first two weeks were looking good until the stay-at-home order came. Tourism tax revenues fell 30.5% from last year when they had broken $1 million in March 2019 for the first time, she said.

April will be worse.

“We’re predicting a pretty devastating April at this point,” she said, adding that local numbers are not yet in.

Statewide statistics show tourism occupancy down 71% by mid-April, she said.

Part of the problem is that Gov. Ron DeSantis barred new bookings in the new industry of private home rentals such as AirBnB, Vestfall said.

Tourism recovery looks shaky in the near future, Vestfall said, citing statistics showing that almost 25% of Americans surveyed said they have no plans to leisure travel for the rest of the year. For those planning a vacation, most are looking at September and October, she said.

Be prepared for more Florida residents driving here, and fewer air travelers, Vestfall advised local businesses.

Charlotte County’s has some real travel advantages, she said, including being less populous, less crowded, and more focused on the outdoors.

“That’s the number one thing we’re seeing, is people just wanting to go to the beach and be outside,” she said.

And they want affordable vacations, given the ongoing economic insecurities, she said.

Businesses should also be prepared to offer hygiene products, also, Vestfall said.

Later in the webinar, when online listeners asked where to get those products, Health Chief Joe Pepe said businesses might have to get creative in finding alternative sources, including local alcoholic beverage manufacturers such as Fat Point Brewers and Alligator Bay Distillers, which switched to making hand sanitizer.

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