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Lee County tourism receives a significant financial boost for advertising

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This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at thwatkins18@gmail.com.

During a September meeting, Lee County Commissioners approved a $12 million per year spending plan for tourism advertising, signaling that local leaders are doubling down on the hospitality industry's leading role in the local economy after a year of tough losses due to the pandemic.

Lee County and Southwest Florida have been among the nation’s fastest-growing tourist areas for almost 50 years. Lee County government plans to capitalize on that and expand its hospitality industry.

Funding for the advertising plan will be taken from the county’s "bed tax," taxes that are paid by tourists to stay in local hotels. Money will go to the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB), an organization dedicated to promoting the area. The VCB’s executive director, Tamara Pigott, said the $12 million is the “big kahuna” of the VCB’s $20 million budget.

“We’re trying to stimulate the local economy. We want to position this place as a great place to live,” Pigott said. “It introduces people to our community, and it keeps us on a path of continual growth.”

“I think communities evolve, they grow, and they change. You look at the university (FGCU) and see so many new hotels around it that weren’t there 10 years ago,” Pigott said. “Communities just do this where they evolve and that’s what we’re seeing happen here.”

According to the Lee VCB website, Lee County tourism employs 1 out of every 5 people. The area received approximately 5 million visitors per year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Those visitors spent about $3 billion in the area, before COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, the winter season was the peak tourist season in Lee County.

Approximately 80% of Lee County’s visitors are domestic (U.S. residents), and 20% are international visitors. The primary domestic visitor population consists of midwestern and northeastern visitors coming down during the winter. On the international side, Pigott said, Canada leads the international tourist population, followed by Germany.

Tourism numbers have been a rollercoaster everywhere in the past year. Lee County’s numbers took a 30% dip during the pandemic, according to Pigott. The decrease lasted until March when the number of visitors bounced back due to relaxed travel laws.

The Holiday Inn at Fort Myers Airport at Town Center, for example, experienced a 30% occupancy decrease last year. Brian Holly, the hotel’s managing director, is gearing up for the hospitality to rebound.

“It’s coming back slowly. We are at the low 70s in terms of occupancy percentage at this point,” Holly said. “The leisurely guests, which means guests traveling with family, are coming back.”

Holly was the chairman of FGCU’s Resort and Hospitality board and managed the Marriott Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa for 18 years.

In his 30 years of experience, Holly has seen the city develop and build for tourism, and he expressed how the community’s unity to focus on tourism has made an impact.

“The city has changed in the sense that decision-makers downtown, the community, and the VCB are working better together than 10-15 years ago,” Holly said. “I think the reason areas like downtown are coming together is because everyone is working together.”

Pigott noted the natural beauty of Fort Myers is a reason it’s appealing to tourists.

“We have a very loyal customer base. People who come here to vacation want to come back again and again. Some of that is because we live in this beautiful, quaint spot that people enjoy,” Pigott said. “We have 50 miles of white sand and sunny beaches. We live on the coastline. We have rivers and estuaries that create magical experiences.”

Shane Stewart, a tourist from Michigan, came here for the experience and connectivity the area provides.

“We thought it would be a great spot just simply based on the fact that it’s beautiful down here,” Stewart said. “You got beaches in your backyard, you’re only like 2-3 hours away from all the major cities and 4 hours away from Disney if you want to go.”

Pigott doesn’t expect 2021’s earnings to be as high as the county’s usual $3.3 billion mark as in past years, but she believes it will be a step in the right direction.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service of Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at kkcarrillo7552@eagle.fgcu.edu

Democracy Watch