Red tide algae blooms have choked marine life and filled the seaside air with pepper-like respiratory irritants all summer.

But, ice and snow are no bargain, either. And trading the cold for Southwest Florida sunshine and warm winter never loses its appeal.

Or so goes the hopes of hotel and condo owners looking ahead to the winter season.

Despite nationwide reports of our red tide crisis, winter-visitor forecasts are not all gloom along the Southwest coast. Higher-end brand hotels in Collier County are happy with their bookings.

Sarasota County winter bookings, on the other hand, are frightful. Charlotte County is not overly worried about its hotel bookings, at least at the branded flag properties that make up the lodging inventory in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. There is concern, though, about the short-term condo rentals and occupancy of mom-and-pop motels on or near the ocean.

Red tide has been especially troublesome for Charlotte’s Palm Island. The island is especially in need of a let up of the toxic algae blooms and a rebound in visitors by winter. Meanwhile, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, among others, are seeing disappointing booking levels, said Lois Croft, Southwest director of the Florida Lodging and Restaurant Association.

“It really varies,” said Croft, whose region includes Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. “From our Fort Myers and Sanibel surveys, we are seeing major drop-offs in bookings and current occupancy.”

“Certain pockets are having a lot of problems. Palm Island in Charlotte for one.”

Palm Island’s summer tourist development tax collections show the extent of the visitor problem, Croft said.

The 5 percent tax lodgers pay on island hotel stays generated $70,370 in May but dove to $13,864 in June and fell even more, to $9,300, in July. An uptick — though still less than half of the May peak — started in August and continued into September. August collections rose to $35,591 and September’s to $31,992.

Those numbers, however, are only slightly lower than figures released for 2017, showing an obvious slow down in summer months. In 2017, Palm Island took in $57,638 in May, $21,320 in June, $10,362 in July and $18,489 in August.

Visitor-promotion professionals have had to redirect a marketing message away from beach destinations to persuading visitors to not scratch the region off the trip list altogether. “There are a million other things you can do besides go to the beach,” Croft said of the refocused messaging.

Virginia Haley, director of Visit Sarasota County, said it appears the hit in visitor numbers the county took in the summer will continue through the winter. “I am very worried about the winter season,” Haley said earlier this month.

“We have seen numerous cancellations of reservations for January, February and March.”

The length of the damage to the tourism trade is going to depend on how soon the red tide totally clears out of the area, Haley noted, “and how quickly we can get our red tide crisis recovery program into the marketplace.”

The red tide crisis recovery program will be hugely important to returning some normalcy to tourism numbers in Charlotte, Sarasota, Lee and Collier. The counties received several hundred thousand dollars in combined grants from Visit Florida to initiate coordinated promotion declaring the Southwest coast is clear.

Sean Doherty, interim director of the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau, wants a “full blast marketing campaign.”

“We are ready to go as soon as the all-clear is given,” Doherty said.

Though the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service reported Oct. 16 the red tide is showing some signs of receding, Doherty concedes no one knows when the dreadful algae blooms will cease and the Gulf waters can return to their aqua blue.

“The 2005-2006 episode lingered 17 to 18 months,” he said. “But I don’t think it was as intense back then.”

Doherty said he does believe snow trumps red tide “anytime” and when the snow starts falling in the North booking numbers will rise in Southwest Florida.

Remember, said Doherty, “You can always rebook.”

Branded hotels in eastern Charlotte County have largely escaped the visitor drops endured by lodging businesses on the Gulf side through the summer, Doherty noted.

Doherty said he doesn’t have winter rental data for vacation homes and condos in beach communities. Nor, he said, does he have winter booking numbers for the mom-and-pop motels along the beaches.

But Doherty said he has seen enough to worry about how they’ll do this winter. “My concern would be for those home rental companies over there,” along with the independently owned motels, he added.

Dr. Randall Upchurch oversees the School of Resort & Hospitality Management at Florida Gulf Coast University. Don’t doubt winter snows will bring visitors south to this region, he said in a recent interview.

This will prove especially true for wealthier visitors who can afford room rates at higher-end branded properties, according to Upchurch.

Even now, “bookings are up or are meeting expectations” for those type of properties, Upchurch said.

They have recently had upticks in bookings for January, he added, citing hotels such as the Hyatt in Naples, the Marriot on Marco Island and the large resort operations.

“It looks like for the ones I’ve talked to, they are back in the swing of things from November through the rest of the season,” said Upchurch, who worked in resort operations before becoming director of FGCU’s School of Resort & Hospitality Management.

A member of the board of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, Upchurch said the association wants to participate in any post-red tide campaigns to juice winter bookings and money spent in restaurants and on other visitor products and services.

The association and its members are “hoping for more of a collective effort” and an opportunity to give input on rebound strategy, Upchurch said.

The shared effort, he said, should include intermediaries and travel agencies delivering the message that what was is no more “so come on down.”

Ultimately, the best messaging may come from TV weather reports in the North. “When it gets really cold up North, yes, I’ll think we’re back. The peak will start when the snows start.”


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