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Is Red Tide hurting Tampa Bay tourism?

Tourism numbers have held steady, but some visitors are reshaping trips and avoiding the beaches.
People walk by a fish kill from Red Tide on the shore of Pass-a-Grille Beach on July 24, 2021.
People walk by a fish kill from Red Tide on the shore of Pass-a-Grille Beach on July 24, 2021. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 29
Updated Jul. 29

For forty years, Cal Frady and his wife have trekked to Longboat Key to saltwater fish and lounge on the beach. But the couple has considered finding a new go-to vacation spot since 2018, when Red Tide blooms plagued 100 miles of Gulf coast for months on end.

“Something chronic like Red Tide could change the market and mentality of people coming there,” Frady said from his home in Penrose, North Carolina. “The powers that be need to consider that.”

The ongoing Red Tide crisis has some vacationers, like Frady, reconsidering or reshaping trips to the Tampa Bay region.

A few who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times are eyeing visits to the Atlantic Coast — or another state — to avoid the microorganism altogether. Other tourists have flocked to Red Tide tracking websites and Facebook groups, wondering how the blooms will affect vacation plans already set in stone.

They ask, should we cancel? Postpone? Try different beaches?

More than 1,600 tons of dead marine life have been scooped up in or near Tampa Bay waters this season. Beachgoers report leaving with coughs, itchy eyes and scratchy throats. Local and state officials have called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue a state of emergency and allocate additional funds to the cleanup efforts.

If the blooms persist, Lori Pennington-Gray, a former University of Florida tourism professor, said the region could see a noticeable dip in visitors.

“There’s generally an impact on visitor arrivals when there is a crisis like the Zika (virus), terrorism or Red Tide,” said Pennington-Gray, who left UF in January to lead the SmartState Center for Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina.

The 2018 bloom hit hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants hard, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Pinellas County tourism agency. Forty-nine businesses self-reported a total of $1.55 million in damages.

This year, numbers like that have been avoided so far.

On the weekend of July 17th, lodging occupancy rates sat above 82 percent in Hillsborough County and above 90 percent in Pinellas County, according to the respective tourism agencies.

Steve Hayes, the CEO and president of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said hotels have handled an influx of Red Tide inquiries, but minimal cancellations. He anecdotally has heard stories of vacationers checking out of beachfront hotels early.

“Still very busy for the rest of the month,” Miguel Diaz of the Wyndham Grand Hotel on Clearwater Beach wrote in an email.

With some visitors feeling wary, that could change.

• • •

Anthony Zippitelli of Pennsylvania is debating cancelling two bookings in Treasure Island before the end of July, when he has to put down the remaining balance. His parents, 80 and 85, have survived heart attacks. One battled pneumonia recently; the other survived a quadruple bypass.

He wonders whether it will be wise to charter a boat with them, or go fishing. A friend in the area told him to avoid the Gulf of Mexico at all costs, but Zippitelli wants to feel the sand between his toes.

“I’d be happy if I can just sit by the water,” he said.

Despite the dead fish, smells and sting of Red Tide, many tourists have braved Pinellas County beaches.

Skyscanner, a Scotland-based website that books flights, hotels and car rentals, even saw an 11 percent rise in bookings to Tampa in the week ending July 23, compared to the week before. “Volumes for searches and bookings for travel within the U.S. to Tampa have stayed fairly consistent over the last two months,” representative Gemma Jaimeson said.

Jaimeson did not immediately have booking statistics available for St. Petersburg.

Four travel agents who spoke to the Times from New York, Illinois and Florida said few clients have asked about Red Tide. Inquiries about gulf trips have remained consistent, they agreed.

• • •

Tanya Fields, 43, and her family stopped by for a quick photo op at Madeira Beach Thursday, sporting flamingo sunglasses. The air stung from the toxins and Fields’ 78-year-old mother, Yvonne Steffen, coughed. Traveling from Kentucky, they had expected to fish, unaware that Red Tide would interfere with their plans.

“We had no idea,” Fields said.

Most of their visit was spent in the pool.

One local believes tourism numbers have stayed steady because vacationers like Fields are unaware. Mark Freels temporarily shuttered tours from See Through Adventures, his clear canoe business, in early July. Each day, he fields multiple calls from tourists hoping to see fish, dolphins and manatees with him.

Almost all of the callers have never heard of Red Tide, Freels said. He estimates that three-fourths of them are already in Florida without understanding the extent of the bloom.

“I just don’t think tourists are being informed,” he said. “But I’m not going to take people out into that water.”

Still, other vacationers arrive knowing what’s in store.

Having visited Florida since she was 5, Ashley Erickson was familiar with Red Tide. She has only experienced it one other time, as a teenager.

“This was worse,” the 34-year-old said from Indian Rocks Beach recently, as her husband tried to clean up fish from the shoreline. “The smell? Awful.”

Erickson said she wanted to make the most of her vacation regardless. Her family went to the Clearwater Aquarium and John’s Pass. And their first weekend in town, Red Tide had barely spread to Pinellas beaches, she said.

“It’s still beautiful,” Erickson said.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater encouraged hotels to share alternate activities, like museums, murals and golfing, with guests looking to spend time farther inland.

Tim and Stacie Wood were also determined not to let Red Tide ruin their vacation. They had heard about it a few days before they left for Florida, but wanted to come anyway to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

Earlier this month, the Indiana couple lounged on North Redington Beach. They had gotten engaged at a local hotel, Redington Surf Resort, 31 years prior. Many of their days have been spent on the beach, cleaning up in the afternoon to go to dinner, before returning to the beach in the evenings.

“The smell doesn’t bother us,” said Tim, 55.

Pennington-Gray said tourists benefit from specific details about the location and spread of Red Tide so they can adjust their expectations. The absence of detail that lets them know how to plan around the bloom makes them “more likely to postpone and cancel” a visit, she said.

• • •

An event like Red Tide wields greater influence on tourism when it makes national headlines, Pennington-Gray said. She offered the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as an example of an environmental crisis that hurt booking and vacation numbers across Florida.

“Visitors in Jacksonville said they could see the oil, which is unlikely,” she said. Other Florida cities can see a downturn in tourism, Pennington-Gray added, when the affected area offers little detail on the issue.

Lisa Krimsky, a Red Tide researcher and water resources specialized agent at the University of Florida, is developing a communications plan to help avoid those those problems.

Her research, funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, found that visitors and residents want localized information about Red Tide, broken down by city or by beach. That helps dispel generalizations about the blooms, she said.

Tourists “see Red Tide and think it’s hurting the entire state,” Krimsky said. “But it’s not. There are a lot of great things to do in Florida that are not affected by this at all.”

Natalie Weber contributed to this story.

• • •

Red Tide coverage

Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.

Is it safe to eat seafood? Here’s how Red Tide affects what you eat.

Can I go fishing? The state is limiting saltwater fishing.

Piney Point: The environmental disaster may be fueling Red Tide.

Red Tide resources

• The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected.

• Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222

• To report dead fish for clean-up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.

• In St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.

• Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.

How to stay safe near the water

• Do not swim around dead fish.

• Those with chronic respiratory problems should be careful and stay away from places with a Red Tide bloom. Leave if you think Red Tide is affecting you.

• Do not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rised with clean water, and the guts thrown out.

• Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.

• Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.

• Beachgoers can protect themselves by wearing masks.

Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County