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ONE YEAR AFTER IAN | Can Southwest Florida's tourism rebound quickly?

Pink Shell Resort pool party for elementary school
Posted at 5:10 PM, Sep 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 18:28:57-04

Just as the 2022 tourism season was gearing up for what could have been a record-breaking post-pandemic year... Hurricane Ian struck southwest Florida, wiping away tens of thousands of jobs in a matter of hours.

As Fox 4 follows through on the recovery process a year later, we take a look at where Florida's key industry stands.

"Having kids and families swimming in the pool, it's fantastic."

Bill Waichulis, general manager at the Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers beach, shared his excitement to have the hotel back open.

The last time we spoke with him, less than a month after the storm, only the sound of construction filled the air. At the time, Waichulis had no choice but to lay off most of his staff as local tourism came to a screeching halt.

"It's been a long year," Waichulis said. "But a year ago I was laying people off. I'm hiring people now, so it's a positive."

Pink Shell is bringing back 150 employees and counting as it is on track to be fully renovated by Thanksgiving.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Florida — every time a hotel room is booked the state collects what's known as 'bed tax dollars.' That money can't come in if the rooms aren't open, which is the case for many locations in Southwest Florida.

A recent report shows just 29% of rooms on Fort Myers Beach are open. On Sanibel, that number is even lower at a mere 2.5%.

"it's gonna probably be about three years before we see everybody back," Waichulis said.

He sits on the Lee County Tourism Development Council, which has been tracking the county's recovery over the last year. At last check, it was down nearly 50% in vital tax dollars.

We asked Waichulis: How will we survive a three to five year recovery rather than a one to two year recovery? By focusing on the positives.

August numbers are higher this year compared to last August, before Ian hit, by 7%. Another positive is the opening of Margaritaville Resort.

"One of the best things happening to Fort Myers Beach is Margaritaville coming online," Waichulis said. "I don't see them as a competitor, I see them as a fellow business on this beach."

Tourism leaders say their marketing is strategic, targeting international hot spots like Germany, the U.K. and Canada, as well as the northeast and midwest... and, of course, locals.

People like Mary Horstmeyer of Iona understand the importance of the coast's recovery.

"We need the tourists here," she said.

"I think looking at the old pictures and the progress we've made, you know, it brings back those memories," Waichulis said. "The story is... we're turning the page."