It’s no secret that the rhythm of our Island is tied to the ebb and flow of tourism. Many of our residents are employed in tourism-related businesses, whether on-island or off. If that flow of visitors and seasonal residents were to suddenly stop, our economy would be in serious trouble. Even those who would prefer that our Island were not such a mecca for those seeking sun and sand and good times would quickly notice as their favorite shops, restaurants and bars closed one by one due to lack of business and friends moved away as they lost their livelihood. Tourism affords our small island an extraordinarily large assortment of retail and dining options, much larger than an island with 6,000 — 7,000 people would have without the additional 2 million visitors who cross our bridges each year.
Yes, 2 million. Actually it’s probably more than that as the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB) has statistics that say 4.8 million visitors come to Lee County each year and 42% of them visit the Fort Myers Beach Pier. Even more, 83% of visitors, say they visit beaches, though that is not broken into which beach they visit. As the largest and longest beach, there’s a good chance that significantly more than 42% of visitors make it to our Island. But let’s use that 2 million for now.
Without any kind of counter on the bridges, we have no way of knowing how many are here at any one moment in time. We’ve heard estimates in the 40,000 – 50,000 range during season, but suspect it can be higher than that during holidays or special events like Shrimp Festival or New Year’s Eve.
The bottom line is every one of those 2 million contributes to our economy. Not just individual businesses’ economy, but the entire island’s economy.
If tourism were to somehow totally dry up, our property values would plummet. Why? Those who own rental property would bail in a hurry, followed by most of the folks who have bought property here in hopes of someday retiring here. Without tourism and the entertainment and lifestyle it provides, many would look elsewhere. Sure some would be happy to have a quiet, sleepy island without the sound of music drifting on the night air or the rev of motorcycles cruising Estero Blvd. But as businesses that rely on those visitors close one by one, all that would be left is a sleepy, quiet island with depressed property values.
Without our non-resident property owners and businesses, our Town could well have 83% less tax income. The 2017 taxable real estate value numbers are in and the taxable values of properties belonging to non-residents or non-homesteaded owners and businesses greatly exceed that of homesteaded residents. Those homesteaded residents, of which the owners of this newspaper are included, pay just 16.2% of the Town’s taxes. Or viewed from a different angle, they pay for just 16.2% of Town services. Non-residents and businesses pay the rest. Our Town needs tourism.
Visitors and seasonal residents can be a challenge to year-round residents. For some people everyone is a challenge. But our Island needs tourism, both the peak season, traffic gridlock tourism and the slower paced summer tourism. Each and every one of our visitors contributes to the economic health of our town in direct and indirect ways. It’s time our Town recognized that.
Our Town should be welcoming tourism and encouraging it. When visitors leave our Island they should be telling people that they had a great time. Yes, traffic was bad, but everything else was fantastic!
We’re not there yet.
Our downtown area gives a blighted first impression. Our visitors complain of a complicated and expensive parking system with not enough capacity. We just increased parking fees by 50%. We provide no public restrooms at beach accesses or anywhere near them. Time Square is way overdue for some attention. The Town not only does not support community events, they make it difficult for others to host them. Except for the 4th of July, they’d like us to point out – they are paying for that one — the one event when the fewest visitors are here.
Our tourism is threatened by water quality, rising airfares, rising gas prices, misperception of hurricane impacts on local communities and a host of other things out of our control.
We’ve seen tourism dry up not that long ago after the BP oil spill and during the recession. We cannot take it for granted. While we cannot control all factors that affect tourism, we can do our best to make Fort Myers Beach an attractive destination that welcomes visitors and their families. We aren’t doing that now.
It’s not just businesses that depend on tourism, we all do. Let’s encourage tourism this season with policies and services that are welcoming.