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Beach tourism could take years to rebound from damage by Ian

Mike Walcher
People dine at sidewalk tables in Fort Myers, a little more than two months after Hurricane Ian flooded the downtown. Some shops and restaurants have cleaned up and reopened in downtown Fort Myers, but others along the gulf beaches will take longer to rebuild and open again.

The biggest industry in Southwest Florida may be facing its toughest challenge ever: The re-opening after Hurricane Ian's catastrophic damage.

Tourism before Ian generated more than $3 billion a year in Lee County alone, according to the visitor and convention bureau.

Now people are struggling to salvage something of this visitor season.

"We've gone through every emotion...anger,  sadness,"  John Lai, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, said.

Lai predicted those islands should expect a limited visitor season this winter. He predicts maybe 50 percent of pre-Ian visitors by the winter of 2024, and 75 percent in winter of '25. Lai said he believes Sanibel and Captiva visitors will reach pre-Ian, and pre-pandemic, numbers by the winter of 2026.

The major problem, he said, is that there are few if any places to rent. Rebuilding from Ian's storm surge will take a long time, he predicted.

Lai said another issue is that beaches are closed because they aren't safe.

"You've got roofing nails and aluminum that will have to be removed from our island beaches," he said. "And then some kind of renourishment of the beaches will have to take place."  

Amy Sbarra said Ian took out her home and business on Sanibel. But she added that she hopes to re-open her Spatini Tea Bar on the island, sooner rather than later.

"I do see things moving faster than people had anticipated," Sbarra said. "I think we will be surprised at how quick it will return."

Some restaurants have come back on Fort Myers Beach, but many hotel rooms and condos won't re-open anytime soon.

One note of hope is coming from Boca Grande. Its beaches and state parks are open, and the Gasparilla Inn with 148 rooms is scheduled to re-open December 15th.

Downtown Fort Myers also is rebounding quickly from flooding, and even the free trolley carrying visitors is back. Some people are shopping, and dining on the sidewalk tables. Rod Pierson visited from Minnesota.

"I'm surprised at all the places that are open," Pierson said. "Some areas look like they weren't even affected."

Canadian visitor Carlo Carlito predicted a mediocre visitor season, and blamed more than just storm damage.

"You know we're in a soft recession, and some people can't afford to come here and spend as they normally do," Carlito said.

Lee County said 8,500 hotel rooms -- about 60 percent -- have re-opened. Lee is promoting online sites listing non-beach attractions. The Lee County Port Authority said that passenger numbers at Southwest Florida International Airport dropped by 44% this October, compared to October of 2021.

That brings the discussion back to the big local attractions — warm weather and beaches. The weather still should be warm, but beach communities like Sanibel and Captiva are having to rely on a lot of hope in the rebuilding process, according to John Lai of the chamber of commerce.

He added that a lot of people are working together to make progress on the islands. "We can see a vision, that in two or three years, we are going to be proud to be a part of," Lai said.

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Forty-one-year veteran of television news in markets around the country, including more than 18 years as an anchor and reporter at WINK-TV in southwest Florida.