People line the shore of Delray Beach in April. Tourism officials say visitors this season rose from 2022 numbers but businesses say summer looks like a return to the typical pre-pandemic lull. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Mary Hladky
Palm Beach County tourism has completely rebounded from the pandemic-induced devastation of 2020, and all signs are pointing to a strong 2023 as well.
While Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s main tourism marketing agency, did not have complete tourism data for the first three months of this year as of the end of April, its preliminary numbers show a clear increase from last year.
“So far our calendar year-to-date totals indicate the visitation is up in 2023 over 2022, with total lodging occupancy up 3.6%, and that includes new hotel inventory added in the past year,” Gustav Weibull, Discover’s associate vice president of research, strategy and destination development, said in an April 24 statement.
Total lodging room nights sold increased 11% in January through April 24, compared to the same period last year, “indicating an increase in visitation to the Palm Beaches,” he said.
Palm Beach County hoteliers, restaurateurs and others contacted by The Coastal Star concur that the year is off to a very good start.
The county saw meteoric increases in 2021 and 2022 as the tourism industry recovered.
Now though, those contacted noted a slight decrease in business to a level that was more typical in the years before the pandemic. And while that bears watching, they are fine with the more normal tourism patterns.
Roger Amidon, general manager of the Palm Beach Marriott Resort Singer Island Beach Resort and Spa and vice chair of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said he anticipated a record-setting year once 2023 is done.
Even so, he has seen a leveling off of demand now that travelers have more options. As the rest of the world reopened to tourists when the pandemic eased, people have resumed travel to Europe and the Caribbean, he said. And cruise lines are offering deals to get people back on their ships.
Visitors to his resort are down about 10%. “We are keeping an eye on that,” he said. “We did adjust our rates to increase our occupancy.”
But he sees no cause for concern. “People want to get out and explore, particularly after COVID,” Amidon said.
Stephanie Immelman, CEO of the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce, has a similar view. “Delray Beach is experiencing a great season this year,” she said. “We definitely know the hotels were packed this season.”
Yet tourism is “falling back to our pre-COVID patterns” of very high occupancy rates in season and a fall-off during the summer months. The chamber “definitely will be promoting” the city as a destination during the summer months, she said.
Like Amidon, Immelman says people are no longer constrained in where they can travel and cruise lines have returned to normal operations.
Cathy Balestriere, general manager of Crane’s Beach House in Delray Beach, hailed the “great and critical rebound” in 2021 and 2022.
Now, “we are noticing that the more predicable seasonal patterns seem to be returning,” she said in an email. “It feels a lot more like the ‘shoulder season’ we used to see” and a return to “normal booking patterns.”
Her guests continue to come from other parts of Florida, the region and from neighboring states. Canadian and European guests have returned, replacing some of the domestic travelers who have opted for travel abroad.
Business and corporate customers at long last are back, “which really broadens our opportunity to market and sell to clients and audiences that haven’t been available to or interested in us for a while,” she said.
Corporate groups also have returned to The Boca Raton. With that and an increased number of rooms, the resort’s bookings have doubled since last year, said President and CEO Daniel Hostettler.
The reopening of the 27-story Tower hotel added 224 rooms and suites.
The Tower’s makeover was part of a $200 million renovation completed last year that touched every part of the 200-acre property.
Since the resort showcased the changes early last year, even more have been made. They now include Flybridge, a fine dining concept atop the Yacht Club with waterfront views and more than 20 retail shops featuring fashion, home decor, books, jewelry and art.
Luke Therien, owner of the Banana Boat and Prime Catch restaurants in Boynton Beach, said in an email that tourism and his business were “definitely stronger” in the first three months this year compared to the same time last year.
He credits outdoor seating that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, which draws customers who remain leery of being enclosed in a crowded indoor restaurant.
He said he also is benefiting from the growing South Florida population, boosted by baby boomers from other parts of the country retiring or semi-retiring in Palm Beach County as well as the influx of people moving from other countries.
Although Discover the Palm Beaches is still crunching recent data, its 2022 report released in February shows a record-breaking number of visitors.
Visitors totaled 9.1 million, up 31% from 2021, and they spent $6.7 billion, up 34%.
The increase was strongest among domestic travelers, while visitation from Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia continued to grow.
“While economic anxiety and affordability are now top of mind, we know travel sentiment remains strong, and this augurs well for the tourism industry in the Palm Beaches this coming year,” Peter Yesawich, vice chair of Discover’s board of directors, stated in a release.
Beachgoers line the shore at South Beach Park. Tourism officials say visitors this season rose from 2022 numbers but businesses say summer looks like a return to the typical pre-pandemic lull. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star