Traditional tourist destinations in Florida, the Caribbean and Alabama that were unaffected by the recent spate of hurricanes are battling a serious image problem, according to a recent report by the Associated Press.
Andy Newman, who handles public relations for the Florida Keys, said in the AP report he was fighting “a huge misperception around the country that the Florida Keys were devastated when they are not. We have absolutely no lingering damage.”
He said many TV viewers saw footage of the Keys being evacuated, but may be unaware that the hurricanes ended up missing Key Largo, Key West and the rest of the primary island chain.
“With both the Caribbean and Florida, the way the news has reported it, it seems like: Stay away from the entire Caribbean and the entire state of Florida,” said Francesca Bonavita, vice president for product and brand development at American Express. “Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, Amelia Island – those are all fine. People can book with confidence.”
“Our tourism is the industry that was most damaged, and not because of structural damage but because of perceptual damage,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “No hotels are closed. No businesses were lost. We are absolutely unblemished. The beach had minimal erosion.”
Danielle Courtenay with the Orlando-area convention and visitors bureau, noted, “The theme parks – Disney, Universal, Sea World, Discovery – were all open within a day of every storm.”
The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau is so concerned about false impressions that it posted post-hurricane photos on the Web to show its beaches were unaffected.
The tourism industry’s concerns about misperceptions are justified, according to one survey. One in five vacationers said they were less likely to visit Florida this year following the battering the state took from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, according to a survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell.
Asked to rate their perception of the damage, 38 percent of those surveyed said they believed the Florida Keys suffered “extreme damage,” with 34 percent saying the Tampa/St. Petersburg area was hit hard and 27 percent having the same impression for Miami.
Yet those areas received, at worst, minimal damage – barely anything compared to places that were very hard hit, such as Pensacola and other parts of the Panhandle, or the Punta Gorda-Port Charlotte region.
Only two of Florida’s 158 state parks remain closed and reconstruction is under way in areas that were affected, such as Fort Myers and Sanibel and Captiva islands, where “90% of the beaches and properties will be open by Christmas,” according to Nancy Hamilton of the Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau.