No one will be guarding a locked door at mile marker 106 in Key Largo, or at any water-based entry, when 12:01 a.m. arrives Oct. 1, the day Monroe County officials decided the Florida Keys will “officially” open to tourists.
Visitors have already trickled in to some areas three weeks after Category 4 Hurricane Irma swarmed these islands Sept. 9 into 10, waylaying neighborhoods in the Middle and Lower Keys.
Starting this week, the push is on to remind potential visitors in the U.S. and elsewhere that despite the widespread damage, still widely visible, the Keys are open for business.
The county Tourist Development Council, charged with promoting Keys tourism, is working with its advertising agency, Tinsley Advertising, to get the message out: We want you here.
The TDC has been approved to spend $1 million to get that word across through ads in the New York Times and USA Today, on television networks and through social media and travel agents. That is good. The reality is that the Keys economy rises and falls with tourism.
With thousands of local residents now left homeless amid flooded homes and sunken live-aboard boats, our businesses — the ones that can and will open — need the visitor infusion so we can help each other get back on our feet.
But we do have a message for the County Commission, the TDC and others in decision-making positions: While not “reminding potential visitors of Irma” is part of the strategy, Tinsley’s John Underwood told the County Commission Wednesday, things are not fine and are not going to be fine for a while. Don’t pretend that they are.
We assume the messaging will focus on Key West and portions of the Upper Keys, which received far less damage than the Middle, and especially, the Lower Keys. Right now, for example, there is no way the Lower Keys can be promoted as a destination for wildlife and nature, which is how it usually goes.
Anglers and divers will be welcome back to seek aquatic adventures off Key Largo and Islamorada, and those who like a party scene will be invited to head to the Southernmost City.
Marathon and the Lower Keys will be back, but for now, the communities’ bruises are still vivid.
Wednesday, in addition to hearing about the marketing strategy, county commissioners OK’d various things that can go a long way toward helping Florida Keys residents recover as fully and quickly as possible.
For example, building permit fees for the unincorporated areas are waived for emergency permits for 180 days, as are permitting requirements for 60 days to remove hazardous vegetation and nuisance exotic vegetation. A 5-cents-a-night tax on vacation rentals is waived for six months for those renting to displaced Monroe County residents. Local municipalities have their own policies on such things.
We all know that most of us would not have livelihoods in the Florida Keys if not for tourism. So we welcome the push to jump-start the industry so we can all benefit. But we also know that while the message coming out of here is that we’re open for business, do not for a minute think business and tourism should take a front seat to our residents’ recovery from this devastating situation, which is not going away anytime soon.