Much of Florida's beaches remain pristine and algae-free and other parts of the state are seeing a boost as tourists relocate their vacations. This year's red tide is the latest wake-up call to climate change that the state's tourism industry has had to grapple with.
Red tide, a naturally occurring toxic algae, has been killing fish and causing respiratory issues along Florida’s Gulf Coast in recent months. The widespread bloom has also put business in the red for some affected destinations and hotels as tourists cancel or alter trips.
Red tide causes respiratory irritation for some people while others don’t experience any symptoms. Some affected beaches advise people to stay out of the water or swim at their own risk.
Florida is the most visited U.S. state and had more than 118 million visitors last year – a record for the state. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board, launched a free marketing partnership last month for affected destinations. As part of the partnership, which runs through February 2019, destinations will get increased exposure on Visit Florida’s site and social media channels to communicate the status of the red tide or dispel myths about whether or not it’s safe to visit. The organization also created a $500,000 grant program to help tourism boards in affected counties.
Visit Florida said the state had more than 65 million visitors in the first six months of 2018, a 6 percent increase year-over-year, but the red tide also hadn’t yet started during that period. Tourism arrivals for the summer and the rest of the year could be less robust depending on how long the red tide lasts and how well destinations can market themselves.
September is usually a slow month for Florida tourism as hurricane season ramps up and schools are back in session, but this year it’s particularly quiet.
Some properties like Harrington House in Holmes Beach, Florida, offered a 50 percent discount on rates from August 24 to September 9 because its business was taking a hit and bookings for the busy Labor Day weekend were looking bleak. It was the first time in the property’s 30-year history that it offered such a discount, said Mark Davis, owner and innkeeper.
“We had to do something to let people know we’re still here,” said Davis. “Right now we’re in good shape with the weather and red tide but it could come back. We’re all at some stage of the red tide. On our island, I’d say a majority of people I’ve talked to have been impacted by it.”
Davis said local and national news coverage of the red tide hasn’t helped, either. “Our island is doing much less business right now than at the same time last year,” he said. “It’s amazing how competitors can come together to support each other. As a community people are banding together as businesses and keeping restaurants filled with residents as much as we can. A lot of restaurants are doing their best to keep their employees on.”
Social media has also been a factor in slower business because some tourists want to post photos of themselves with dead fish, said Davis. “Our local CVB will have a campaign as soon as the county feels comfortable that we’re in good shape,” he said.
Other small properties across Florida like Harrington House have lost business for September because of red tide. Superior Small Lodging of Florida, an organization that represents small and privately-owned hotels, inns, and villas across the state said that many of its members are offering discounts.
“Many of our members are normally booked solid in September and that’s not the case this year,” said Anne Sallee, CEO and executive director of Superior Small Lodging of Florida. “Pretty much all of them will do what it takes to get people back in.”
Sallee said this year’s red tide has been worse than previous years. “A lot of people don’t understand that we also have a blue and green algae bloom right now and we’ve probably had that impact us for the past three years,” she said. “It’s hitting places it hasn’t hit before. As it gets cooler, it will clean up and go away.”
Some of the organization’s members are frustrated that local tourism boards haven’t done enough to convey what’s happening. “Two of our members actually contacted their local TV station because they felt the CVB wasn’t doing its job,” said Sallee.
Tourism Still on Track
Sallee said Florida Governor Rick Scott told attendees at the Florida Governor’s Conference earlier this month that the state’s tourism arrivals are still on track for this year despite red tide. Visit Florida said it expects to release tourism arrivals data for the third quarter is November.
Florida’s east coast has been mostly untouched by the red tide and the Sun Sentinel newspaper reported that some of the state’s east coast destinations have seen a bump from tourists deciding to visit that part of the state instead.
Red tide is not a rare occurrence and has been observed in Florida and other parts of the world for hundreds of years. But climate change and warmer ocean temperatures have certainly made recent events like this year’s more severe.
Scott, who is also running for one of Florida’s U.S. Senate seats, is under pressure to solve the issue as election day approaches. He’s authorized allocating $13 million to help impacted destinations. The state is also experimenting with new technology that would add more oxygen to the water to mitigate or prevent future algae blooms. The red tide will likely disappear as the winter months get closer, but tourism could continue to suffer from future events if solutions aren’t fast-tracked.
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Photo credit: This year's red tide in Florida is one of the state's worst on record. Pictured is a red tide warning sign at a beach in Brevard, Florida in 2015. boxer_bob / Flickr