LEE COUNTY, Fla. — According to the most recent tourist figures released by the Lee County Tourism Development Council, the year 2022 was a record-breaking year for tourism, shattering the marks that were established before the pandemic month by month. As a result of Hurricane Ian, all of that momentum has been lost.
The most recent data that has been released by the Lee County Tourism Development Council indicates that as of the month of August 2022, the county has earned more than $64 million in revenue from the tourism bed tax. The influence that tourism has on the economy of the area is measured by the leaders of the community using a tax that is imposed on hotel rooms.
2019 was the biggest year for tourism in Lee County, raking in $42.7 million dollars, and it was the last year before the pandemic. Then, in 2021, that record was surpassed with the amount of money collected reaching $53.3 million, but in 2022, that figure increased once again by more than 26%.
“Business was fantastic to see it come to a screeching halt,” said Bill Wailuchis, General Manager of the Pink Shell Resort and Marina. “It is just devastating, especially how it affects our employees and our community.”
According to Waichulis, the storm surge caused damage to the marina, bungalows, and rooms on the second level of the Pink Shell since it rose as high as the famous octopus that is located at the hotel’s pool. This is an estimate of 15 to 20 feet. According to what he said to Fox 4, it may not be until far into 2024 before tourists return to Fort Myers Beach.
“As we target renovations and different areas, hopefully in 12–24 months we will start seeing vacationers on the island,” Waichulis adds.
But it’s not the reconstruction that keeps Waichulis up at night; it’s the disruption of livelihoods caused by the large number of people who have lost their jobs since there is no longer any work to be done on the beach. According to authorities in Collier County, around 30,000 people depend on employment in the tourist and hospitality industries. Waichulis asserted that the figure is higher in Lee County.There are now a lot of people without jobs. Two hundred workers at The Pink Shell just found out this week that they won’t be able to keep their jobs.
“It’s more than 30,000 and we are 200 employees of that we had to let go over the last few days,” Waichulis said holding back tears. “That’s 200 families, that’s what makes me emotional.”
He said that many of those workers are now going to other regions, such as Tampa and Miami, while the resorts’ human resource departments are currently working with hotels around the state who could be recruiting.
Additionally, The Pink Shell has established a GoFundMe campaign in support of its staff, which has now raised over 125,000 dollars. The resort is donating that money with the assistance of a charitable organization.