By staff writer
October 2018 – 2 min. read
There’s no escaping the fact that the 2018 summer tourist season on Florida’s Gulf Coast has been one of the worst in recent memory, both economically and environmentally. The major red tide event has led to record-low occupancy rates for local hoteliers and restaurateurs. In some counties, residents are already referring to it as the “lost summer” due to the estimates of revenue lost from lack of tourists. While mostly restricted to the west coast of Florida, the outbreak of red tide has recently turned up on the Atlantic coast and parts of South Florida as well.
Nearing the end of September, well over 700 tons of red tide debris had been collected in Pinellas County. Similarly, 40 businesses in the area reported losses of at least $128 million. Both figures are still likely to rise as the red tide lingers beyond the summer.
For residents of Pinellas County, the trouble started months prior to the red tide actually hitting local shores. The counties to the southern part of Pinellas were hit the hardest this summer, but news sources mostly from outside of the state more or less lumped all of the central Gulf Coast together in their coverage of red tide, leading many beach-going Americans to believe that the entire Gulf Coast was plagued with toxic blue-green algae.
“It was reminiscent of the [BP] oil spill to some degree. It was here if you watched the national media, but it really wasn’t here. We actually never had oil on our beaches,” Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Island Resort, told Invest: Tampa Bay when he sat down with our team earlier this week. “The national exposure and media coverage that the red tide to the south of us received killed us, even though we had very minimal red tide for only a few days here on St. Pete Beach. Our year has been destroyed financially when comparing the results to our forecast at the beginning of the year. We know with certainly that we lost somewhere around 1,000 room nights. We’ll never know how many people canceled and didn’t tell us why or never even called to book. You could easily estimate that it had a million-dollar impact on us.”
Understandably, marketing Pinellas County as a tourist destination has been a bit more challenging this year.
“Our goal is to convey the most accurate up-to-the-moment conditions of the shore,” David Downing, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, told Invest:. To that end, the Visit St. Pete-Clearwater website has an online resource titled “Current Beach Conditions,” offering beachgoers real-time information about the local waterways.
The website is both industry-facing and consumer-facing. “It has 17 points across Pinellas County’s coast, updated twice daily with human eyes, ears and noses on the beach, reporting on the conditions in real time,” he says. “It has been a godsend for us because we can send people to the unaffected places.”
As far as marketing and advertising is concerned, Downing suggests that Visit St. Pete-Clearwater has had to tweak its message a bit. “[We’re talking] about many of the other facets of the destination, not so beach-forward,” he said. “We have the mural festival happening, a jazz festival and the culinary and craft beer scene, among many others.”
So what is being done about red tide? As we enter into the fall and winter months (however indistinct that transition might be here in Florida), county officials and business owners are looking forward to putting all of their red tide woes in the rear-view mirror.
A $1.3 million grant from the Department of Environmental Protection has paid for those aforementioned beach and water cleanups across Pinellas beaches, and Governor Scott has pledged a total of $13 million in grants to help affected counties battle the algal bloom.
Keith Overton says that in the future he’d like to see some funds allocated for research purposes. “I really do think that scientific research is a worthy investment to try to figure out how we can minimize the effects of red tide,” he told Invest:. “The only way we can even consider solutions is through government-funded scientific research. If we can better understand what causes red tide, we have a better shot at finding a viable solution and one that has less of an impact on the Gulf of Mexico fishery.”