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Stormy weather for the Sunshine State’s largest industry

Tourism suffers across Florida after pummeling by hurricanes.
Image: Key West, Florida
Duval street is a ghost town after mandatory evacuations took place for Hurricane Ivan in Key West, FloridaMarc Serota / REUTERS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bill and Carol Tharp grasped each other for support as five-foot waves crashed against them in the surf off this Atlantic Coast beach made famous by NASA astronauts and the 1960s television show “I Dream of Jeannie.”

The tourists were the only beachgoers in sight along a seemingly endless stretch of sand which only two weeks earlier was battered by Hurricane Frances. They started their vacation this week, just days after Hurricane Ivan tore up Florida's Panhandle and more than a month after Hurricane Charley plowed through the southwest part of the state.

“Everybody told us ‘Don't go to Florida!’” said Carol Tharp, 50, a counselor from Cookeville, Tenn. “But we're here and we're enjoying it.”

Only a hundred yards from where the Tharps frolicked in the water, though, was the Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach, temporarily closed because of water damage from Frances and a testament to the biggest crisis to hit Florida's $51 billion tourism industry since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused a 20 percent drop in Florida tourism three years ago.

Back-to-back-to-back hurricanes have pummeled expensive oceanfront resorts in Florida, eroding sandy beaches and damaging some hotels. A fourth hurricane, Jeanne, is threatening to hit Florida's Atlantic Coast over the weekend. It will take months for some to recover. Add the repeated images of boarded up homes, flooded streets and fallen trees on television and Florida's tourism industry has a problem.

Huge losses for tourism industry

The economic effect of the hurricanes on the state's tourism has yet to be calculated, but it could be in the billions of dollars since a 1 percent loss in annual market share for the state equals a loss of $5.4 billion in tourism-related spending. Tourism is the state's largest industry, accounting for almost a tenth of Florida's $500 billion economy. Florida ranks only behind California as the nation's top tourism destination.

In one ominous sign, hotel occupancy rates in two of Florida's largest markets, Miami and Tampa, were down 22 percent last week compared to the same time last year, according to Smith Travel Research. Both markets suffered only minor damage from the hurricanes.

“We are very concerned about the image that Florida has gotten because Florida has gotten so much negative publicity over the last 45 days,” said Tom Waits, president and CEO of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association.

The Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach, which housed the Mercury 7 astronauts in the early 1960s, had roofs partially ripped off of three beachside buildings by Frances. All 502 rooms suffered some water damage, causing $3 million to $4 million in repairs. The hotel will be closed until early next month.

The hotel “has been here since 1962 and she has experienced quite a lot, but this is the hardest hit she has ever taken,” said Shay Baranowski, its general manager.

Shuttered properties, repair crews at work

Along the Atlantic Coast, thousands of the state's 400,000 hotel rooms have been closed for weeks since Frances blew across the state. Most of the damage is cosmetic rather than structural, but many hotels may not reopen until the end of the year when the busy Christmas season starts.

The 118 rooms at the Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront along Florida's Space Coast were soaked by Frances, requiring drywall and carpets to be replaced and causing several million dollars in damage and lost business. The hotel restaurant's ceiling was destroyed, requiring seating booths, industrial refrigerators and shelves of canned olives and beans to be temporarily relocated in a carpeted ballroom. Clear plastic tubes, one-foot in diameter, snake along the ceiling of the hotel's first floor blowing hot air into water-damaged rooms.

The Breakers, the aristocratic 108-year-old resort in Palm Beach, closed for three weeks after Frances because of roof and water damage. The equally posh Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach also closed to the public but hasn't set a date to reopen.

In southwest Florida's Charlotte County, which felt the brunt of Hurricane Charley's Category 4 winds last month, about a third of the county's 3,300 hotel rooms were damaged at a cost of millions of dollars. Hundreds of hotel workers are without jobs in this county where tourism accounts for more than one-tenth of the 57,000 job market.

Tourism has ground to a complete halt in the Pensacola area where the main attraction—the area's beaches—have been made almost inaccessible by Ivan. Many of the roads leading to the beaches are covered by 10 feet of sand and won't be reopened for weeks. Many beachside condominiums and hotels were blown away by the hurricane and many of those that remain are lacking electricity, water and operational sewers.

On the bright side, the state's three major markets, Orlando, Miami and Tampa, were relatively unscathed by the hurricanes, and the hurricanes hit during some of the slowest months for Florida tourism. Additionally, the hotel occupancy rate in Orlando was up by 8 percent last week compared to the same time last year.

Big discounts, small visitor numbers

But already, some tourists have postponed their vacations. About a dozen patrons of Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines Vacations postponed their trips to Florida during the past month because of the hurricanes. The vacation package operator sends thousands of tourists to Florida each year.

In the future, tourists may not book their trips to Florida during hurricane season, "but overall, I think business in Florida will remain strong," said Jane Foldy, marketing manager for Midwest Airlines Vacations.

Some conventions that have gone ahead with their meetings in Florida this week have seen diminished attendance. More than a third of the 1,100 delegates who signed up for U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association convention in Fort Lauderdale stayed away.

To counter the hurricane images, some hotels have offered post-hurricane discounts and tourism promotion bureaus around the state have gone on a public-relations offensive.

In the two weeks after Frances, the Ocean Walk Resort condominium complex in Daytona Beach offered Florida residents a special post-hurricane rate of $99 a night, down from the usual $139.

Starting this week, in response to Frances, Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, plans to spend $185,000 advertising in USA Today and on Canadian radio with a message that the state is still open for tourism business. The agency ran similar ads after Charley.

Visit Florida also will likely ask Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers for up to $30 million for public relations, advertising and promotional efforts to prevent an erosion in tourism market share.

Charlotte County, which relies on eco-tourists who like to kayak, fish and canoe, has authorized $200,000 in advertising in national magazines with the message, “Now that the worst is over, the best is yet to come!”

“I like the analogy that our recovery will be like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” said Becky Bovell, the county's tourism director.

Volusia County tourism leaders in the Daytona Beach area were trying to get the annual Biketoberfest motorcycle festival to start a few days earlier in order to give extra business to local hoteliers and restaurants.

Other destinations, such as the Florida Keys, which was evacuated three times, and Panama City Beach, which had at least $15 million in lost business from Ivan, planned their own advertising campaigns. Orlando tourism officials set up interviews on morning television shows in the northeast.

“We need to let people know we're up and operational,” said Bob Warren, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.