Steve Hayes, like so many across Tampa Bay, is feeling grateful. National forecasters had predicted Tampa Bay’s centurylong streak of hurricane luck was about to end. The region was looking at 10 feet of storm surge. Billions in property damage.
But the disaster arrived about 75 miles to the south. Now, Hayes, the CEO of Pinellas County’s tourism agency, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, and other leaders of Tampa Bay’s tourism industry say they are trying to tread a careful line: letting visitors know the region is open for business, while also being mindful that vast swaths of the state are reeling from destruction.
“It’s a very delicate message,” Hayes said, adding that Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has paused advertising in Central Florida, the Fort Myers area and Sarasota.
“Our airports are open, our port is open, our hotels are open, our attractions are open. We have to make sure that business continues to thrive,” said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Hillsborough County’s tourism arm, Visit Tampa Bay. “But it is with a heavy heart, because we have a great relationship with all of our friends down the west coast of Florida.”
The agencies’ social media feeds, brimming with pictures of sunsets and smiling families, are now peppered with information on how to help with hurricane relief efforts.
Businesses and beachfront owners from Clearwater Beach to Pass-a-Grille were among the first to be evacuated in Pinellas County. But after shifting south, Hurricane Ian left little damage and a sense of relief. In St. Petersburg, the Dalí Museum’s beloved Wish Tree was ripped from the garden, but the building and its contents went unharmed.
Meanwhile, in the state’s southwest, roads became rivers, homes and business swallowed by water. Survivors now sift through the ruins of their slice of paradise. Many of the hotels still standing remain booked, filled not with vacationers but with those looking to escape the wreckage or those without homes to return to.
Visit Sarasota County paused their digital advertising campaign before Ian’s landfall. “It remains paused,” said vice president Erin Thomas Duggan. “We’re welcoming visitors back, as safety measures permit.”
Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism body, has also paused advertising as it crafts a “recovery plan” campaign to offset the negative images of washed-out communities and damaged bridges from Hurricane Ian.
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The most hurricane-ravaged state in the country is also home to license plates proclaiming “endless summer,” 825 miles of sandy beaches and the world’s most visited theme park. Florida ranks among the most visited states by both domestic and foreign tourists. Orlando alone welcomed 59.3 million visitors last year.
The state’s tourism industry had been roaring back after two years of a pandemic. A record 36 million people visited Florida in the first quarter of 2022 — up 39.6% from 2021 and 1.3% above the pre-pandemic first quarter of 2019.
In Hillsborough County, the total Tourist Development Tax collections within the first 11 months of the 2022 fiscal year exceeded $53 million, surpassing the overall collections ever received for any fiscal year and representing a 59.6% increase over the same period in 2021, according to data from Visit Tampa Bay.
Local tourism leaders are keen to continue the upward trajectory, spreading the word that the region is unscathed with open arms.
Both Tampa International Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International shuttered for less than 72 hours during Ian. Neither sustained extensive damage. A couple of conventions set to take place in Tampa were canceled during the week of the storm, as was another that would have taken place this week, Corrada said. “Now, we want people to know we’re open for business.”
The same sentiment rings true in the state’s northeast: “Ian has moved along and things have returned to normal across Florida’s Historic Coast,” began a news release from St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau Monday morning.
The Sunshine State’s leisure and hospitality sector employ more than 1.2 million people, a 9.6% increase from last year, according to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity.
“Florida is a very large state with a very large tourism industry. Even though Ian was a very large storm that hit a large swath of our state, most of it, on a macro level, will recovery very quickly,” said Kevin Murphy, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Central Florida.
“Florida is a place people want to go, and what impacts that more than anything is the overall health of the U.S. economy,” he said.
The threat, passage and destruction of major storms punctuates the state’s history.
Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, barely grazed the edge of the Tampa Bay area on its way to flattening the small towns of the Florida Panhandle in 2018, drowning the coast with a 20-foot surge.
The year before, the state’s tourism industry was left counting the cost of Hurricane Irma’s devastation. It caused widespread flooding and left millions without power across Florida, though the damage in Tampa Bay wasn’t as bad as it was in other communities.
The storm, which hit in September 2017, cost the state an estimated 1.8 million out-of-state visitors, according to travel data company Tourism Economics. By December, the number of out-of-state visitors rebounded to non-hurricane predictions.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is gearing up for what leaders hope will be a busy winter and spring.
“We’ll do it in a sensitive way,” Corrada said. “But we really do need to make sure that the economic engine of tourism continues to run.”