Sarasota officials: Tourism during red tide similar to post 9/11 downturn

The most recent FWC red tide update puts Bay Area beaches mostly in the clear with only "background concentrations" noted offshore in Sarasota County.

It's good news for tourism and beachside businesses that endured several months of financial hits. But there are worries that lingering fears about the toxic algal bloom could keep visitors away, despite clear shorelines.

Monday, the executive director of Visit Sarasota County, Virginia Haley, addressed a group of state lawmakers at the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation about the impact of red tide. She said the drop in hotel occupancy in the last quarter of 2018 was the worst they'd seen in that period since 9/11 in 2001.

From October through December of last year, hotel occupancy dropped to 58.9 percent, compared to 66.4 percent in that same time period last year. 

"We definitely look at it as an impact from red tide," Haley told FOX 13.

Despite significant improvement on the shoreline, the impact on tourism could continue. A survey in December found that 81 percent of Sarasota County hoteliers anticipated lower business in the first three months of 2019.

"I think that people's concerns were the unpredictable nature of red tide," Haley said. "There were people who really want that guarantee when they made their vacation plans, that it was absolutely gone. So there are people who have deferred their plans and they are going to come at another time."

Haley urged lawmakers to stand behind Visit Florida and maintain its current funding, just as the state's tourism agency stood behind them. From red tide crisis to the relief, she said that Visit Florida shared time-stamped photos and real-time updates on beach conditions, combating misinformation and old pictures of dead fish circulating online.

"As conditions started to improve, you still saw people sharing images from several weeks prior on social media," Haley said. "It was very hard to get the true and accurate picture out to the public as things did start to improve."

"In August, it started hitting hard," recalled Guy Vincent at Wyland Galleries. "Inside the gallery, you could actually feel it in your throat. Yeah, it wasn't the best."

Vincent is relieved to see business on the upswing and hopes the good news spreads as far and wide as the bad did.

"Our beaches are too pretty not to be on, you know? So, it's terrible," Vincent said. "Glad it's over and done with."

One family visiting from Indiana remembered hearing the news reports at home.

"I really didn't know what red tide meant," said Nancy Higbee.

Right now, their only concern is getting to the beach in time for sunset.

"When we get back, our wind chill is going to be 40-below, so, we are trying to soak up as much Sarasota as we can."