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Businesses near Everglades National Park feel economic pinch

Last year at this time, the hubbub of travelers staying at the Everglades International Hostel and the nonstop ringing of the phone with future patrons on the other line making reservations enlivened the Florida City inn.

But this year, things are quiet.

“Just take a moment to listen. We are referring to this quiet sound as ‘eerie,’ ” said Owhnn, who owns the hostel. “There’s an eerie silence just by having these national parks closed.”

Owhnn — who goes by a single name — is referring to Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park, which hug South Miami-Dade County to the east and to the west. Both are shuttered because of a congressional stalemate that resulted in a national budget impasse and a government shutdown now in its third week.

Not only has the shutdown furloughed 238 Everglades National Park employees and another 14 employees at Everglades park’s independently run visitor centers, but it has brought a near halt of business to some South Miami-Dade County hotels and restaurants that largely cater to park guests.

“I hope the people in Washington resolve this because the little people are suffering without the tourists,” added Elsa DeVito, owner of Gator Grill, an eatery on Southwest 192nd Avenue, near Everglades National Park.

“The little people” include mom-and-pop businesses like the Everglades International Hostel, which relies mainly on park visitors, as well as local branches of national chains like the Travelodge in Florida City, which only partially relied on Everglades National Park visitors.

“It’s a shock,” said Owhnn. “It’s a shock to not have the phone ring. It’s a shock to not have the emails in the inbox.”

Since the parks’ closure Oct. 1, Everglades International Hostel has been steadily locking in fewer and fewer reservations each day. A week ago, Owhnn said she locked in no sales from online, phone and walk-in reservations. That is a first, she said.

While there have been about 40 cancellations at the Travelodge, at 409 SE 1st Ave., General Manager Sunny Patel said he is still at 45 percent occupancy, which is about five percentage points lower than what he usually locks in at this time of the year.

“I have some construction workers staying in, so therefore I am OK,” he told the Miami Herald. “But some housekeepers had to stay home. Poor girls. But if there’s no rooms, there’s no work.”

The economic impact on Owhnn’s hostel is as much a result of the lack of current visitors as well as from the lack of consumer confidence: Travelers aren’t calling to make reservations.

Usually, early October is when the majority of people solidify their travel plans, resulting in an influx of tourists that begins in early November and lasts until April, said Owhnn. But with the parks’ closure, the hostel’s phone barely rings.

“If you are planning your vacation, are you going to wait and see if the parks reopen to make your reservations or are you going to go somewhere else? It’s precious planning time,” said Owhnn. “With the economic impact of this shutdown, you’ve got your immediate day-to-day loss and your future revenue loss.”

Studies show that Everglades National Park pumps about $147 million annually into surrounding communities, which stretch from Miami to Florida City to Naples in the west, said Dan Kimball, who is superintendent of the park.

But it is difficult to determine how much of that South Miami-Dade County is losing during the government shutdown, he added.

Owhnn, at the Everglades International Hostel, had been preparing for what she hoped would be another busy tourism season. With the parks’ closures, that won’t be the case now.

Part of her future revenue loss includes about $10,000 from the first two days of October from travelers who did not make reservations as expected.

With Everglades National Park’s website shuttered, large groups of travelers, such as college students who travel to national parks during their spring break to dedicate thousands of community-service hours to habitat restoration, cannot obtain information about the parks. So instead, they may seek out state parks instead.

“You can’t recover that kind of loss,” said Owhnn. “We are going to feel the loss even if the shutdown ends tomorrow. It’s heartbreaking.”