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Lee County tourism comes to a 'screeching halt' after Hurricane Ian

After record-breaking tourism numbers in 2022, Fox 4 speaks to iconic Pink Shell Resort on recovery and rebuilding
Pink Shell Resort and Marina
Posted at 3:01 AM, Oct 21, 2022

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Latest tourism numbers from the Lee County Tourism Development Council shows 2022 was a record-breaking year for tourism, smashing records set pre-pandemic month by month. All of that momentum now gone after Hurricane Ian.

According to the latest numbers from the Lee County Tourism Development Council, as of August 2022, the county collected more than $64 million dollars in tourism bed tax dollars. This tax is set on hotel rooms and is how leaders gage the impact tourism has on the local economy.

Pre-pandemic, 2019 was the best year for tourism in Lee County bringing in $42.7 million dollars. Then 2021 broke that record at $53.3 million dollars collected, but in 2022 that number rose again by more than 26%.

"Business was fantastic to see it come to a screeching halt," said Bill Wailuchis, General Manager of the Pink Shell Resort and Marina. "It is just devastating, especially how it affects our employees and our community."

The Pink Shell sustained damage to its marina, bungalows and second story rooms as the storm surge reached as high as the iconic octopus at its pool, that's an estimated 15-20 feet, Waichulis said. He tells Fox 4 it could be well into 2024 before tourism comes back to Fort Myers Beach.

"As we target renovations and different areas, hopefully 12-24 months we will start seeing vacationers on the island," Waichulis adds.

But the rebuilding isn't what keeps Waichulis up at night, it's the livelihoods upended with so many who lost their jobs, as there simply isn't any work on the beach. Collier County leaders say about 30,000 people rely on tourism and hospitality jobs, Waichulis said it's more in Lee County. Many now unemployed, including 200 employees just at The Pink Shell who were told just this week the resort could not keep them on.

"It's more than 30,000 and we are 200 employees of that we had to let go over the last few days," Waichulis said holding back tears. "That's 200 families, that's what makes me emotional."

He said many of those employees are now moving to other areas like Tampa and Miami while the resorts' human resource department is now working with hoteliers across the state who might be hiring.

The Pink Shell also set up a GoFundMe page for its employees, raising already more than $125,000. The resort distributing that money with the help of a non-profit.