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A half-moon rises over the Gulf of Mexico as sunshine conquers the early-morning shadows of Margaritaville Resort on Fort Myers Beach.

It’s a crisp and cool 60 degrees with a blue, cloudless sky. It’s one of the last grand mornings before Easter Sunday, which unofficially but typically marks the end of tourism season in Southwest Florida.

As the day springs to life, so does the Fins Up! Beach Club, the new, resort-style pool fronting the beach and Estero Boulevard.

Making her way past the Lah De Dah restaurant, the Salty Rim Bar and the “No shoes, no shirts, no problem!” sign, Tina Anderson gets ready to relax in the pool area, noting the morning temperature back home in Michigan was 19 degrees the same day.

“The pool,” Anderson says of why she chose Margaritaville Resort as her four-night vacation destination. “We wanted to pick where we could go to the pool and the beach.”

Nearby, Myles Purdy, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, also gets settled facing the pool, his back to the beach. He has brought his family of four to Margaritaville for a seven-night stay after trying a hotel of the same brand last year across Florida in Hollywood.

“We wanted to try this one,” Purdy says. “You can go from the pool to the ocean. It’s just steps away. The pool is great.”

Anderson and Purdy share more than the commonalities of being from Michigan and choosing Margaritaville Resort. They also represent a seasonal uptick in visitors to Southwest Florida from one year prior—an uptick made possible by the passage of time, the completion of two resorts and the coastal region’s continued recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022.

Tourist tax revenue jumped upward, month-to-month, year-to-year, from 2023 to 2024 in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties. That’s after nosediving from 2022 to 2023 following the hurricane, which knocked out about 30% of Lee County’s hotel rooms, most of which were on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva barrier islands.

After plunging by as much as 94% in Lee County in February 2023, this year the revenue rose by as much as 40% in Lee County in February, to $1.2 million from $905,395 one year prior.

“We’re in recovery mode, right?” says Tamara Pigott, director of Lee County’s Visitor & Convention Bureau. “The first quarter of ’24 was better than the first quarter of ’23. But we still know we’re in recovery mode.”

New inland hotels are helping, Pigott said. So does knowledge that construction projects, such as Shalimar Beach Resort on Sanibel Island, have started.

“Our success is going to be determined by the units reopening along the beaches—to have a place to put the visitors,” Pigott says. “They really want to be on the water. Don’t sleep on this area. When we come back, we’re going to have the newest products on white, sandy beaches.”

Charlotte County brought in $1.3 million in tourist tax revenue in March 2024, which was 20% more than last year and a Charlotte County record for most in any month.

The tourist taxes also trended upward in each county as the new year progressed from January through March.

“Our properties reflected what the averages around Lee County say,” says Robert Wells, a member of Lee’s Tourist Development Council and owner of Cabbage Key, a seven-cottage island retreat with a restaurant popular with day trippers. He also owns Tarpon Lodge, a restaurant on the northern end of Pine Island.

After January was slower than normal because of cloudy, cooler weather, business at the lodges and restaurant picked up in February and March, Wells said.

“Once we got through that time period, which was one of the longest, coolest winters I can remember, we started to see a big improvement,” Wells says. “For us, the spring months were really strong.”

Easter fell on March 31 instead of early- to mid-April this year. Wells said he thought that would cut tourism season short. Instead, he said, it extended it.

“When we normally have an early Easter, most people in tourism expect a very concentrated amount of people earlier in the season,” Wells says. “What I was pleasantly surprised by was how strong the season was, even through April. And that was after all the schools had finished with Spring Break. I think the season went long for having an early Easter, and that was a little counterintuitive to what I’ve seen historically.”

Sanibel, Captiva inch toward recovery

Before Hurricane Ian, Sanibel Island had 1,993 hotel rooms, and Captiva Island had 589, according to John Lai, CEO and president of the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce.

In March 2023, those numbers fell to 14 on Sanibel and 128 on Captiva.

By March 2024, those numbers had crept up to 263 on Sanibel and surged back to 584 on Captiva—the latter a near-normal number made possible by Royal Shell shifting some units from rentals to hotels, Lai said.

“We are a year and seven months and three days out from this event,” Lai said May 1. Because he often gets asked about Ian recovery, Lai has a working knowledge of how many years, months and days have passed since the islands forever changed.

“When I go back to Sanibel having 14 units in March of 2023, all of a sudden, the numbers this year don’t look so bad,” Lai says.  An economic study by Florida Gulf Coast University showed 83% of Sanibel and Captiva’s nonlodging businesses—retailers, restaurants, professional services, tourist attractions—have already recovered and returned to business following Hurricane Ian. But only 22% of lodging has returned.

“That’s a concerning ratio,” Lai says, noting those businesses will especially need mainland locals to support them for economic survival during the slow summer months.

“This season was great,” Lai says. “But without the hotels online, it didn’t do what it typically does in a traditional season. It did not provide enough overage to carry our restaurants through the additional nine months of the year. There will be some challenges. We will be calling on our locals as we did last year. The city and the chamber are going to do our part with marketing—the 50th anniversary of the city of Sanibel.”

Sanibel incorporated Nov. 5, 1974.

“By season of 2025, we will see about 50% of our hotel rooms come back,” Lai says. “We think that at that point, there will be enough inventory to help support these businesses.

“By season of 2026 is when we think we’ll have over 65%. That’s our magic number that will help support these businesses back to a normal season.”

New normal in Charlotte County

On Dec. 15, 2023, after repeated delays because of COVID-19, supply-chain snags, construction-related issues and Hurricane Ian, Sunseeker Resort finally opened. It did so with 785 rooms, becoming the largest resort in Southwest Florida.

In March 2022, Charlotte County had 1,950 hotel/motel rooms, not including vacation and condo rentals.

In March 2023, that number dipped to about 1,700 after Hurricane Ian wrecked Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel and Holiday Inn Express-Port Charlotte, which permanently closed.

Sunseeker’s opening boosted the number of hotel rooms to about 2,500, about 550 more than before the storm.

“It’s been giving us a nice shot in the arm,” says Sean Doherty, tourism director of Punta Gorda and Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau. “We’re excited to see where that can go.”

In March, locals and tourists alike were discovering Sunseeker Resort for the first time.

“It’s beautiful,” says David Webb, a Punta Gorda resident who could watch the real-time progress from across Charlotte Harbor. “We’ve been coming down for years. I’m very impressed after just watching it be built over the last three years. There’s such a selection. I’m very impressed with the quality of flooring and all the decorations.”

Peter Belanger, from Romeo, Michigan, found out about Sunseeker from his daughter-in-law, who works there. He planned on an eight-night stay.

“They spend the winters down here,” he says. “Then they come back up north for the summer.”

Sunseeker has 10 restaurants, including Allegiant Stadium Sports Bar & Grill, Harbor Yards Food Hall and Maury’s steak and seafood. There are seven shops, two resort-style pools, Lorelei Natural Beauty & Wellness and a fitness center. Locals, take note: There are three self-parking garages and two valet parking areas.

“It’s just a laidback vacation for us,” Belanger says. “What caught our eye was all the different restaurants and shops. We like being around this place. You don’t have to go anywhere else; you really don’t. There are two pools here.”

“This is a 10, and I travel a lot,” says Jay Liebe, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He works at a data and technology center and planned a five-night getaway.

Doherty at the visitor and convention bureau said the reviews have been positive, not just for the resort but for the region. “They’re doing well,” Doherty says. “They’re still working to try and get their name out there. It’s their first resort. But they’re having several conferences, which bring hundreds of people to town.

“It’s not what people expect. One of the comments was, ‘I don’t even feel like I’m in Charlotte County right now. I feel like I’m on vacation somewhere else.’ It’s a modern, Las Vegas kind of feel, or Miami Beach.”

He added, “I can say that they certainly had a positive impact. You’ll see it when I send you the bed tax spreadsheet.” Charlotte County bed taxes jumped by 14% year over year in January, 40% in February and 20% in March.

The county also is working to market Sunseeker internationally.

“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” Doherty says. “We’re excited not only where Sunseeker can bring us, but we have marketing and PR firms over there working on our behalf, raising awareness. We contracted with international representation firms.”

Those efforts, he said, are focusing on the United Kingdom and Germany.

“A lot of them will fly into Tampa,” Doherty says of international tourists. “They don’t just come to one location, they’re going to move around; so, they’ll maybe fly into Tampa and go to St. Pete for a few days. Then they’ll hop in a rental car and go down the coast. So, we try and get them to stay (in Charlotte) for a few days.”

Spring training surges

Some of those visitors eventually make their way to Major League Baseball’s spring training games. The Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays combined to play 44 Grapefruit League games this year, drawing a combined 297,948 fans, just short of 300,000—and to varying degrees of success.

The Rays returned to train at their home-away-from-home in Port Charlotte. The stadium was out of commission last year, undergoing repairs from Hurricane Ian. The Rays averaged 4,020 fans in 13 games at Charlotte Sports Complex, which has a capacity of 7,670 fans. The Red Sox averaged 8,653 fans in 15 games at JetBlue Park, with a capacity of 10,823. That’s 2.3% more than last year’s average of 8,452 fans per game, the team’s lowest mark since 2011, when the team still trained across town at City of Palms Park. The Red Sox drew 9,738 fans to the March 12 game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the most of any team in the region this year.

The Twins averaged 7,243 fans in 16 games at Lee Health Sports Complex, which has a capacity of 7,500 seats. That’s up 19% from last season’s average of 6,089 fans, which was the team’s lowest average turnout in 10 years. They drew 9,430 fans March 9 for a standing-room-only crowd against the New York Yankees.

Anita and Rudy Compart brought their children Darcy, 8, and Sloan, 7, to a Twins game.

“It’s very relaxed,” Anita Compart says of the spring training scene. “It seems easy for families, and it’s way more affordable (than the regular season).”

Blake Skillman of St. Petersburg by way of St. Louis watched the Cardinals play at the Red Sox. “Love it,” Skillman says. “You can go out on the back fields and see all the minor leaguers play ball. I think it brings a lot of money into these communities.”

Bill Bassett also visited Fenway South. He did so from Hudson Valley, north of New York City. He stays in a riverfront Fort Myers condo for 10 weeks each year.

“By the time we get home, the flowers are blooming, and it smells like spring,” Bassett says. “I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.”

The Red Sox tweaked some of their spring training business plan, said Jonathan Gilula, Boston’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. The Red Sox added giveaways including a Jimmy Buffett bobblehead doll as options in ticket pricing and rolled parking fees into the ticket prices. The latter move improved traffic flow into the parking lots on game days, he said.

“It shows there are a lot of ways to improve the fan experience with new technology,” Gilula says. “Our attendance is tracking consistently with last year. All of our business metrics continue to be strong. I’ve been going back and forth to Boston the past couple of weeks, and all the flights that I’ve been on have, in either direction, been completely full. Completely full.”

Flying high again

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) just missed, by 4,269 passengers, setting a monthly record when there were 1,509,777 passengers in March, up 36% from March 2023. January (1.1 million passengers, up 17% from 2023) and February (1.2 million passengers, up 24% from 2023) also showed a bounce-back from one year prior, when the area was still feeling the immediate aftershocks from Hurricane Ian.

At Punta Gorda Airport (PGD), limitations in the number of flights prevented such a resurgence, but the airport did improve during two out of the three peak tourism months. In January, air traffic fell by 3.65% from 2023, with 167,561 passengers instead of 173,911. But during February and March, air traffic increased by about 4.2% each month, with 190,503 passengers in February and 244,434 in March incoming and outgoing on Allegiant Air and Sun Country Airlines.

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere

While Allegiant will be looking for synergies in promoting its airline with its resort, the area’s other resorts are angling to capture those visitors, too.

David Cesario, who since has moved on from TPI Hospitality, presided over the launch of Margaritaville on Fort Myers Beach. As the half-moon rises, he marvels at the instant success.

“January, February, March—it’s exceeded what we thought,” Cesario says. “The local foot traffic into our restaurants has been great. We’ve moved from high season to shoulder season. Lower occupancy in the week, full on the weekends.

“It’s the honeymoon phase. It’s got fantastic amenities and four large restaurants and retail. I have fun, all day long. From the moment someone gets here, they’re going to hear music. You walk outside, you feel the vibe. It’s like an entertainment complex with a hotel attached. For a while, it was about the hurricane; now, it’s about the restaurants and shops coming back. If the hurricane hadn’t happened, we were counting on the walkability of Times Square.”

With Times Square yet to be rebuilt, Margaritaville Resort has become something like the center of town.

Mike Blanchard, 68 and a financial planner, visited for six nights in March from Belmont, New Hampshire. He’s wearing an “I drink and I know things” T-shirt. While it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, like the name of the pool-side bar, it’s not yet 9 a.m. here, and he doesn’t have a drink in his hands—yet. But he knows things anyway.

“And you look around,” Blanchard says, “and everyone’s happy.”

‘This feels like another blow’

January 2024 marked the end to a nearly year-long drought across Southwest Florida, but the local watersports industry wasn’t celebrating. In fact, one of the wettest winters on record—combined with colder-than-usual temperatures—has made for a particularly hard watersports season this year.

“It’s been a nightmare,” says Christina Llamas, who owns Surf Naples with her husband, Shaun Jacobs. Surf Naples offers surf and skimboard lessons on Naples beaches. “I grew up here, and it’s probably one of the worst winters I can remember. With the cold fronts coming through and the wind and the rain—it’s been a horrible mix for our winter.”

Meteorologists attribute the cold and wet weather to a strengthening El Niño. The last time Southwest Florida experienced a similar winter season was in 2016, when that January received the most rainfall ever recorded. It was the start of a series of bad seasons: Hurricane Irma struck the following September, then the devastating red tide blooms of 2018 dealt a severe blow to local watersports companies. COVID-19 saw business decline then surge in the wake of the pandemic, but the damage caused by Hurricane Ian in September 2022 brought another hard season. Now, watersports companies are once again facing a difficult summer ahead.

“From a business standpoint, it’s scary,” Llamas says. “I know a lot of businesses like ours who work on the beach, and winter is a really busy time for us with all of the people coming down to enjoy the beautiful weather. We’re just coming out of trying to recover from the hurricane, and we were counting on having a good season. This feels like another blow. Now we’re wondering, ‘Is next winter going to be like this?’”

Other area watersports businesses are feeling a similar pressure. “We provide wet suits for all of our customers, but it’s certainly been a little bit quieter because people are more reluctant to get in the water when it’s cold out. There’s been a shift, for sure,” says Laura Foht, who co-owns Foil Naples with her husband, Eric. The Foil business—which offers lessons in the battery-powered, all-electric, over-water surfing device—depends on good weather along the lines of the typically dry, warm days of Southwest Florida’s winter season. “Nothing has been consistent over the last four years,” Foht says. Between hurricanes and water quality, a post-pandemic travel surge (“COVID revenge travel,” Foht calls it) and this season’s dreary weather, business has been unpredictable. “We can’t really tell if business is up or down, in or out,” she says.

Rob Wells, who grew up in Southwest Florida and owns the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant, as well as Tarpon Lodge, calls it “one of the worst winters” he can remember. Cabbage Key is only accessible by boat and Tarpon Lodge draws a boating crowd, so both businesses rely on good watersports weather. “We had countless days that were gray and windy and cool. It seemed like winter didn’t want to end,” Wells says. “Our businesses really suffer when we don’t have good weather.”

Like Llamas and Foht, Wells has seen his businesses experience a series of challenges among the pandemic, the hurricanes and this season’s strange weather. But there were still good moments. “There’s been some really great tourism times in between those difficult times,” he says. “A lot of people in our industry would like to just have a normal year. It’s been a while since we’ve had that.”

— Artis Henderson

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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