Published On: Tue, Aug 11th, 2020

South Florida’s tourist economy shows little sign of recovery

Coronavirus has hit the south Florida economy hard. The damage is likely to be longer-term than we originally had thought. This is due at least partially to an over-reliance on tourism related industries. Normal travel and economic activity now seem years away for our region.

When the economy is doing well, tourism and cruises help make this region a hub for travelers from all over the world. Multiple local industries feed off one another. For example, airlines bring travelers to south Florida, who spend time and money in our restaurants, in our stores and on our beaches. Those same travelers take cruises which both depart and terminate here.

In the last several weeks, many major foreign airlines have delayed the resumption of flights to south Florida. Others have outright cancelled flights to our region. This includes Ireland’s flag carrier, Aer Lingus which is terminating Miami service for the foreseeable future, and Emirates, the world’s largest international airline cancelling the planned September resumption of service to Fort Lauderdale.

My understanding is that the cruise industry was the biggest single reason that Dubai-based Emirates flew to Fort Lauderdale. Without cruises being offered regularly, flying a wide-body jet 15 hours to south Florida from the Middle East is not economically viable for the airline.

In May, when the outside world thought Florida had beat the Coronavirus pandemic, airlines began to start loading flights to our region back into their computerized schedules. Flight levels were planned to resume to close 60% of pre-COVID levels for August and September.

While the uncertainty around the cruise industry meant that they were not planning on resuming the same levels of service we saw prior to the March lock-downs, by December, south Florida’s three main airports would have been back to about 80% of previous schedules. These flights were bookable throughout much of the summer. But Florida struggled to contain the virus, leaving too many travelers unwilling to take a chance on coming here.

The economic downturn inflicted by the virus in March and April was supposed to be temporary. However, it has now been exacerbated by the failure of much of the public to take the virus seriously. In fact, the huge June and July spikes in case numbers led airlines to reconsider service to the area and also has given many potential visitors in the winter pause.

Several regular Holiday Season visitors to Florida have told me that this year, they may vacation elsewhere. To these people, it is clear we have not properly contained the virus. Many feel we have not been serious enough in our efforts. This helps to explain why bookings were light for planned flights that were ultimately shelved. The general perception around the country is that Florida has failed in its efforts to prevent further spread of Covid-19.

Instead of reassuring potential visitors that all steps were being taken to assure safety, Governor DeSantis’ choose to engage in fiction. His inconsistent and mealy-mouthed responses to public data showing the surging case load made our state a laughing stock. This helped to turn potential visitors away.

Multiple domestic air carriers have pared back previously scheduled resumptions of service to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach. This includes locally-based Spirit Airlines. Spirit had been bullish that tourism to our region would regain some lost ground in the Fall. They were also hopeful that locals would travel to other parts of the country and to the Caribbean for short vacations. But unfortunately, demand has not recovered to even match the highly reduced expectations of the airlines and travel industry.

The raging Coronavirus pandemic in south Florida is not the only factor impacting travel to our region. The inability of Brazil or Colombia to properly contain the virus’ spread in their nations has led to fkight cancellations that help isolate for our region. Both nations are closely connected to south Florida economically and in terms of ethnic communities locally.

Avianca, Azul, GOL and LATAM have all scaled back flights from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to South America, leaving a huge hole not only in the tourist economy, but also to our normal everyday economic activity. Until Brazil and Colombia recover from COVID-19, south Florida will be negatively impacted.

The cruise industry which has long created greater demand for air travel to our region as well as other benefits for our economy is nowhere near recovering from the COVID slowdown. At this point, it has to be wondered if that industry ever does regain the trust and faith of potential customers. If they do not, south Florida’s economic health may never recover to the pre-pandemic levels without some serious discussion of how to diversify our local economy.

Our road back to economic prosperity in south Florida, unfortunately will be a longer one than we had expected just a few short months ago.

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