Every year, Katrina Lara and her Doral family take a Labor Day vacation on Sanibel Island. But not this year.
Instead, her family is planning to go to St. Augustine. Unlike the Gulf Coast, it is free from the toxic algae blooms know as red tide.
“In all the years we’ve been going to Sanibel, this has never happened,” Lara said.
Experts at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission say the blooms are now receding in some areas, and beaches could be clear for Labor Day Weekend. But much depends on winds and high temperatures, and they can’t promise the scourge won’t return. Movements of algae blooms can only be predicted 3.5 days in advance. Experts say the blooms could continue in the state for months.
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That was too risky for the Lara family. “We decided to cancel before it was too late,” she said.
Though August and early September are traditionally slow months for Gulf Coast tourism, this year’s traffic has been significantly slower because of the toxic algae K. brevis, which has littered coastlines from Bradenton to Fort Myers with dead fish and inky water. Residents and visitors have been struck with respiratory and throat irritation. Popular beaches at Anna Maria Island, Sarasota, Captiva and Sanibel are deserted, and businesses up and down the coast have been devastated.
When compared to last year, hotels have seen an average 5.2 percent drop in occupancy from July 28 to Aug. 18 in the four counties worst hit: Manatee, Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota, according to data provided by data analytics firm STR.
Local businesses are responding with discounts and situation updates.
“We’re telling customers that red tide is a natural phenomenon and we understand that. But at the end of the day we’re open,” said Robert Baugh, chief operating officer of the Chiles Group, at a red tide response meeting on Aug. 15. It owns three Gulf Coast restaurants: The Sandbar in Anna Maria, The Beach House in Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista Dockside in Longboat Key. “I’m standing out here on the beach at the restaurant, in the sand, I’m not coughing, there’s no dead fish.”
On Aug. 13, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven Gulf coast counties. The action freed up almost $5 million in emergency funds and small-business bridge loans but brought a flood of cancellations to hotels like the White Sands Beach Resort on Anna Maria Island near Bradenton, in Manatee County. But about 50 percent of his fall reservations have canceled, said co-owner Jeff Gerry.
“All the customers freaked out,” he said. Bookings as far out as January have been affected.
In Lee County, the Sanibel Island and Captiva Chamber of Commerce estimates Sanibel Island businesses have taken a $4 million hit since red tide rolled onto its beaches a month ago.
Amanda Escobio, owner of Sea-renity Beach Spa and Bou-tiki on Anna Maria, said she has had a significant loss of business and even had an employee quit over the red tide. For the first two weeks of the outbreak, she had not one beach-side massage.
“A lot of people are very nervous,” Escobio said.
Three other counties included in the emergency order — Hillsborough, Collier and Pinellas — have seen far less impact from red tide. In those counties hotels have actually seen a slight increase in occupancy over last year, of 1.3 percent, according to STR.
Some of those may actually be benefiting from trouble farther north. Some travelers who flew into Southwest Florida who would normally stay elsewhere have found their way to the JW Marriott Island Beach Resort on Marco Island, in southern Collier County, where beaches are clean.
“That’s of course not a way we want to draw business,” said the hotel’s director of marketing and sales, Amanda Cox.
Though the hotel lies well outside the bloom zone, Cox said her team has had a flood of guest inquires asking about the condition.
“I think that if I’m sitting in the Northeast or the Chicagoland area and see these heart-wrenching videos in the national media,” she said, “I as the consumer don’t have the geographical framework to distinguish between Marco and other areas on the coast.”
In response, the Marriott has posted a beach camera on its own website and that of the Collier County Visitors and Tourism Bureau. Each day, Cox sends out a status report to the over 900 employees at the resort so workers can confidently answer guest questions about red tide conditions.
After the red tide subsides, Visit Florida, the state’s tourism bureau, will spend $500,000 in state emergency funds on a marketing campaign letting the world know that the coast, literally, is clear. The money will be doled out to affected counties in grants and used to pay for advertisements, website development and brochures.
Counties that have been spared are using some of the money now to deliver the message that their beaches are clean. Jack Wert, executive director of the Collier County tourism bureau, said his agency is focusing on social media to spread the word. The county is also collecting photographs posted by beach goers and aggregating them on its website.
“We found that, post-Irma, using Facebook Live to show the Naples pier and beaches helped a lot,” he said.
Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, isn’t counting entirely on its current good fortune. Red Tide normally peaks in September and October. So Pinellas is working on securing funds from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for beach cleanup and equipment and locking down a contractor in case the bloom moves north.
“We’re continuing to actively monitor and make sure we have a contractor in place in case we have a large scale cleanup,” said Pinellas spokesperson Kelli Levy.
Tourists who planned trips during the red tide bloom will likely return — which could create a surge, said Dr. Walter Klages, founder of Research Data Services, Inc. Manatee County, for instance, increased visitors by about 6.5 percent in June 2018 over June 2017.
Already, some hotels are offering deals to visitors.
The Island Inn, the oldest hotel in Sanibel Island, has seen more than $150,000 in cancellations and early departures since red tide washed ashore a little over a month ago. To encourage business, general manager Chris Davidson said the boutique hotel had to dramatically cut room rates.
Government response, he said, is always reactive.
But Davidson said its not enough. The three-month, $50,000 small business loans covered under the state’s emergency order won’t help much.
“Yeah we may be on the upswing, but the damage has been done,” said Davidson.
Red Tide updates
While the latest report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission found algae concentrations thinning in the past week for Manatee, Sarasota, Collier and Lee counties, these areas aren’t in the clear yet. There’s no guarantee that the bloom won’t come back in force by the time Labor Day Weekend rolls around.
“The conditions are returning to normal,” said Virginia Haley, president of Sarasota County’s tourism bureau, Visit Sarasota. “But a lot of that is a function of the wind and high temperature.” Sanibel City Manager Judie Zimomra said that if conditions continue to improve, the beaches will be spotless by the weekend.
Public officials advise travelers to monitor the situation by checking city websites and beach cameras. FWC releases an updated statewide forecast every Wednesday and Friday.
The following websites publish statewide forecasts and county-by-county updates on the proliferation of red tide.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, updated every Wednesday and Friday: //myfwc.com
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov
- Pinellas (Clearwater, Treasure Island and St. Pete beaches): www.pinellascounty.org
- Manatee (Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key and Coquina beaches) www.mymanatee.org
- Sarasota (Siesta Key, Longboat Key, Lido Key beaches) www.scgov.net
- Charlotte (Englewood Beach) www.charlotte.floridahealth.gov
- Collier (Marco Island, Barefoot and Vanderbilt beaches) www.colliercountyfl.gov
- Lee (Sanibel Island, Fort Myers and Captiva Island beaches) www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
- Hillsborough (Apollo Beach Nature Preserve, Beer Can Island) www.hillsboroughcounty.org
Gulf Coast travel deals
Hotels along the Gulf Coast are offering discounts to attract visitors. Here are a few:
Sundial Beach Resort and Spa, Sanibel: Second night free plus complimentary breakfast for two, through Dec. 20. Rooms start at $179 for 2 adults on the weekday, $239 for weekend. 239-472-4151; www.sundialresort.com
Zota Beach Resort, Longboat Key: 30 percent off all rooms on week nights, through Sept. 30. Regular rates start at $178 . 855-335-1102; www.zotabeachresort.com
The Boat House Motel, Marco Island: Special rate starting at $105 per night Sunday through Thursday; two night minimum required on weekends. Holidays excluded. 239-642-2400; www.theboathousemotel.com
Outrigger Beach Resort, Fort Myers: Rooms from $120 per night from Jan. 4 through Jan. 14. 239-463-3131; www.outriggerfmb.com