Vaccines, cabin fever offer hope for gloomy tourism forecast
The Renzi family shops for souvenirs at Beach Planet in Delray Beach. (l-r) Joe; Stacy; Mia, 8; and Ari,10, live in Chicago but came to Florida for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends who live in Boca Raton and Delray Beach. They stayed at the Delray Beach Marriott. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Mary Hladky
Canadian Carol Baker and her husband, Ralph, have wintered in Briny Breezes for more than 20 years. But not this year.
“I think we will wait until next fall when we have the vaccine and everything seems to be settled down,” said the Ottawa resident. “We are sorry to miss it this year. You have to weigh the pros and cons. There are too many cons this year.”
Lanny and Beth Farr of Ontario, who have come to Briny Breezes each winter for 10 years, also will be no-shows.
They wanted to come.
“We decided no,” Lanny Farr said. Since they were stuck in Canada, Beth underwent a hip replacement and Lanny had a knee replacement.
The situation is unfortunate for both Canadians and Americans, Lanny said. “You need our money, we need the warmth.”
These two couples and other Canadians interviewed by The Coastal Star cited varying reasons for their reluctance to travel to Florida during a pandemic.
The U.S./Canadian border is closed to nonessential travel until Dec. 21, and the closure could be extended. That makes it impossible to drive down.
Oddly, Canadians are still allowed to fly into the United States. But it is far more expensive to fly to South Florida from Canada than it is if people cross the border and take a flight down from a U.S. city. They’d also have to ship a car down or rent one here, another big expense.
Canadian health insurance does not cover them if they become ill in the United States. Canadians can buy additional insurance, but it is very costly.
Lorna Huber of Ontario has underlying health issues and said she can’t take a chance of coming to a state where COVID-19 cases are spiking.
“A lot of Canadians don’t have any plans for going down unless there is a vaccine,” said Joan Nicholls of Ontario.
In 2019, 3.6 million Canadians visited Florida, according Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation. Visit Florida estimates only 6,000 came in this year’s third quarter, a decrease of 98.8% from the same period last year.
The missing Canadians, as well as Europeans who are barred from travel to the U.S., are among reasons that tourism officials predict that Palm Beach County’s tourist season this year will be nothing like the record-breaking 2019 season.
“We expect a season, but we expect a light season in comparison to normal,” said Peter Ricci, director of Florida Atlantic University’s hospitality and tourism management program.
In October, Ricci was getting reports that hotel bookings for the winter season were increasing. But as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked for the third time this year, people began canceling their reservations.
If the rate of infections doesn’t stabilize or decrease, his outlook will darken, Ricci said.
Even though the hospitality industry adapted quickly to the pandemic, “certainly there will not be a season that is anything close to what you and I consider a season,” said Troy McLellan, president and CEO of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce.
Surge in virus is worrying
Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing organization, reported an all-time-high 8.22 million visitors to the county in 2019.
Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and CEO, expects about 6 million visitors in 2020, a 27% decrease from last year.
Hotel occupancy crept up from 30% in April to 47% in mid-November, Pesquera said. He forecast 55% occupancy in December and more than 60% in January through March — which would be a good showing during a pandemic but still down from the high 70s to mid-80s in the recent past.
The resurgence of COVID-19 could change that. “It is unfortunate the trends have been going in the wrong direction for the last several weeks,” he said on Nov. 18. “The encouraging news are (vaccine) announcements from Pfizer and Moderna, which are getting the entire world excited, in particular the leisure and hospitality industry, which have been most affected.”
Since then, AstraZeneca also has announced its vaccine is effective. But a dosing error involving some study participants has raised questions about whether additional testing would bear out the vaccine’s initially strong results.
Safe and effective vaccines “will bring back a tremendous amount of confidence in the traveling public,” Pesquera said.
Tourism is vital to the state and local economies. In 2017, out-of-state visitors added $85.9 billion to the state’s economy, according to Visit Florida.
Visit Florida estimates that 22.1 million visitors traveled to Florida during the third quarter, a decrease of 31.8% compared to the same period last year. But that was an improvement over the second quarter, which saw a 60.3% drop.
With Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing not to lock down the state and giving counties and cities no leeway to enforce the wearing of masks to control the coronavirus, the tourism industry’s fate likely will depend on how soon people get vaccinations.
Until then, tourism officials are forging ahead with their efforts to attract visitors.
With international tourism flatlined, they first marketed to Florida residents — urging them to take short vacations at local hotels and resorts to give them a respite and offer hotels and restaurants some business.
They then expanded to the “drive market,” airline-averse travelers who can drive to Palm Beach County.
Businesses work to be safe
Tourism officials and hoteliers are emphasizing cleaning and sanitation protocols so guests feel safe.
For example, Discover the Palm Beaches supports hospitality businesses pursuing the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s GBAC STAR accreditation program. Those accredited have established a cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention program. Among them are Palm Beach International Airport, Palm Beach County Convention Center and the convention center hotel.
Until vaccines become widely available, Palm Beach County has advantages that can lure snowbirds and tourists despite the pandemic.
It’s cold up North, forcing people inside, where infection can spread more easily. But locally, the weather is usually lovely and people can still dine outside, spend a day at the beach or visit a park.
Nick Gold, public relations director for Eau Palm Beach in Manalapan, which has enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, said the resort is expecting a good season.
For Christmas and New Year’s Eve, guests have the option of dining in oceanfront cabanas, private spaces in the hotel, or can have holiday meals delivered to their rooms.
Guests “want to be on the beach in the peak of winter season,” he said.
Luke Therien, whose family owns the Prime Catch and Banana Boat restaurants in Boynton Beach, knows the season will take a hit, “but I don’t think it will be as bad as some people think” because people who live up North “don’t want to be stuck in the house all winter long.”
“A lot of people can’t go to Europe or the Caribbean or travel around the world,” he said. “What are they going to do? They are going to come to Florida.”
Therien closed his restaurants when the pandemic hit, and used the time to do renovations before reopening.
His employees get temperature checks every day and must wear masks. Six-foot distancing is maintained.
Lots of outdoor seating is his ace in the hole. “We are lucky,” he said.
Guests “can go to a restaurant and not stress over the experience,” he said. “It is an intelligent way to have lunch or dinner with a spouse or friends.”