Lee County tourism comes to a screeching halt after Hurricane Ian

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — The latest tourism numbers from the Lee County Tourism Development Council show 2022 was a banner year for tourism, breaking records set month-by-month before the pandemic. All that momentum is now gone after Hurricane Ian.

According to the latest figures from the Lee County Tourism Development Board, as of August 2022, the county has collected over $64 million in tourist bed taxes. This tax is fixed on hotel rooms and this is how the leaders measure the impact of tourism on the local economy.

Before the pandemic, 2019 was the best year for tourism in Lee County, bringing in $42.7 million. Then 2021 broke that record with $53.3 million raised, but in 2022 that number increased again by more than 26%.

“Business has been fantastic to see it come to an abrupt halt,” said Bill Wailuchis, general manager of Pink Shell Resort and Marina. “It’s just devastating, especially how it affects our employees and our community.”

The Pink Shell suffered damage to its marina, bungalows and second-floor rooms as the storm surge reached the height of its pool’s iconic octopus, about 15 to 20 feet, Waichulis said. He tells Fox 4 it could be well into 2024 before tourism returns to Fort Myers Beach.

“As we target renovations and different areas, we hope that within 12 to 24 months we will start to see vacationers on the island,” adds Waichulis.

But reconstruction isn’t what keeps Waichulis awake at night, it’s livelihoods disrupted with so many people losing their jobs because there are simply no jobs on the beach. Collier County leaders say about 30,000 people depend on jobs in tourism and hospitality, Waichulis said it was more in Lee County. Many are now unemployed, including 200 employees at The Pink Shell alone who were told this week the station could not keep them.

“It’s over 30,000 and we are 200 employees that we had to lay off in the last few days,” Waichulis said, holding back tears. “It’s 200 families, that’s what makes me emotional.”

He said many of those employees are now moving to other areas like Tampa and Miami, while the resorts’ human resources department is now working with hoteliers across the state who could hire.

The Pink Shell has also set up a GoFundMe page for its employees, already raising over $125,000. The station distributes this money with the help of a non-profit organization.

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