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Laura Layden | Naples Daily News | USA TODAY NETWORK | FLORIDA

Collier County’s tourism industry has bounced back more quickly than expected from the pandemic.

At least, when it comes to the transient or leisure market.

That’s reflected in the county’s latest visitor statistics from its consultant Tampa-based Research Data Services, shared Monday at a Tourist Development Council meeting.

In March, all metrics turned to positive, compared to the same month a year ago when the World Trade Organization officially declared the CO VID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

“It’s so nice to be reporting positive numbers,” said Anne Wit tine, director of data analysis for Research Data Services.

Here’s what the year-over-year improvement looked like last month:

  • Visitors: 230,200, up nearly 62%
  • Room nights booked: 282,800, up more than 70%
  • Economic impact: $363,568,000, up almost 93% Even more telling are some of the side-by-side looks at occupancy and rates, not only when held up to last year, but to where they stood before the pandemic turned the travel industry upside down worldwide.

In the case of the average daily rate, the county’s increased to $413.27 in March, up by more than 20% from $342.11 a year ago and up by almost 15% from $359 .90 in 20 19.

Occupancy surged by more than 77% over the year to 87.5% last month, edging closer to the more solid rate of 9 1.6% seen in 2019.

Lee County reports quarterly, not monthly data. Data for the first quarter won’t be out until May, so it’s not yet clear how its tourism industry is faring.

A comeback

Collier County saw a record year for tourism in 2019, so comparisons to then are viewed as that much more impressive as the industry makes a comeback.

The county continues to see a higher than usual number of visitors hailing from Florida, a trend spurred by COVID-19.

Since the outbreak, more tourists have stayed closer to home and driven to their destinations, rather than flying, to avoid crowds and reduce their exposure to the virus.

In March, the county saw 66,988 visitors from Florida. That was up by nearly 57% from a year ago, reflecting market shifts.

“Even in March, we found those core visitors that have supported us all the way through are still coming, and still coming in big numbers,” Wittine said.

Indeed, March visitation from state residents was 21.4% higher this year than in 2019.

Other key markets in the United States are picking up as the recovery takes hold in Collier.

These regions showed huge improvements in visitation numbers last month, when compared to a year ago:

h Southeast: 20,027, +98.1% h Northeast: 75,736, +80.9% h Midwest: 54,788, +131.8% Those higher numbers reflect several factors, a greater willingness to fl y, due to a growing number of vaccinations as well as a pent-up demand from visitors who are venturing out again, following forced or voluntary lockdowns, Wittine said.

As further evidence of those trends, she said, the county had nearly twice the number of visitors from markets west of the Mississippi in March, when compared to a year ago. That includes California, where lockdowns have been much more heavy-handed, due to the severity of cases.

Domestic travelers are driving the turnaround, as visitation from Canada and Europe is still too small to measure, due to travel restrictions and limited flights.

At the start of 2021, a recovery like this one wasn’t expected to happen in Collier until late this year, or early next year.

Beating the competition

Collier’s tourism industry isn’t just recovering sooner than expected, but more quickly than most of its competitors in Florida.

Pointing to statistics from tourism research fi rm STR, Wittine noted the Naples area or county saw a 125% increase in its hotel occupancy rate for transient, or short-stay leisure travelers, in March, when compared to last year. That put it first for the highest percentage increase among its competitive set, which includes markets such as Clearwater, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Palm Beach, Miami and the Keys.

The STR data which includes all of the major hotel brands also shows Collier had the highest year over year increase in its average daily rate for leisure travelers among its rivals in March. That rate rose by more than 30% to $418.05.

Only the Keys had a higher rate at $456.61.

Comparing 2021 to 2019, Wittine said only the Naples area and the Keys saw positive increases in their revenue per available room in March.

The revenue per available room is derived by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate.

While there are many positives, the local tourism industry still faces some tough challenges.

One of those challenges is luring back group business, which has been much slower to recover, with most in-person meetings and events postponed or cancelled outright since the pandemic.

STR data shows occupancy for groups in the Naples area at just 5.6% in March, down more than 53% from a year ago.

Now hiring

Another big challenge for the industry As it gears up again, area hoteliers are struggling to fi ll open positions.

The pandemic forced the industry, one of Collier’s largest to shed thousands of jobs. The jobs have come back faster than the workers, Wittine said.

“In Collier, we have some properties that say they could have had more rooms in the market and could have sold them if they could have had the staff to be able to serve those visitors,” she said. “So, that is definitely an issue the industry is seeing as we move forward in this recovery.”

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, members of the Tourist Development Council reveled in all of the good news.

Naples City Councilman Mike McCabe, who sits on the advisory board, said there are just “piles and piles” of great news in the latest statistics.

“We are accelerating rapidly,” he said.

Although they lag behind, the county’s tourist tax collections are showing improvement as a result. A chunk of the 5% tax, charged on overnight stays, is used for tourism marketing, and that’s seen as crucial as the county works to stay ahead of the competition.

For the fiscal year that started in October, tax collections are down 17% over the year, but the gap is narrowing, said Jack Wert, the county’s tourism director.

“We are making progress,” he said. “Slowly, but surely.”

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