The Florida Keys received more money in March from hotel, motel and short-term vacation rental taxes than any month in the last two years, according to Monroe County’s tax collector.
The 5% tourist development tax the county receives from hotel and motel transactions is a strong gauge of the health of the Keys’ visitor-supported economy. Additionally, the nearly $6.8 million collected in March is further evidence the island chain has recovered from the battering it took in the beginning and middle of the COVID-19 pandemic amid business shutdowns.
The tourist development tax collection hasn’t neared that amount since April 2019, when the county received more than $6.9 million in revenue from Keys lodgings, county Tax Collector Sam Steele said.
Officials in the Keys say there are a number of factors at play. One of the biggest is the local tourism industry benefiting from many international destinations remaining shut down due to the pandemic.
“We’ve never been in this situation where our competition’s been closed,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
The beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, was pretty rough, she noted.
“Things really started picking up as far as demand and business right after Valentine’s Day,” Mitchell said. “That’s when people started moving again and the inquiries started coming in.”
The rise in tourism can be attributed to a number of factors, Mitchell said, including the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, what she calls “Covid fatigue,” and the arrival of stimulus checks across the country.
“I was taking a look downtown this weekend and everybody is just so glad to be somewhere,” Mitchell added. “There is this overwhelming sense of gratitude for being able to travel. It’s a whole different scene this year.”
People want to be outside as much as possible these days and the Keys can provide that for them, Mitchell said.
“Because we’ve had a year of virtual,” she said.
Last March, the bed tax collected was almost $6.5 million. But by late spring and early summer, as a result of two checkpoints keeping visitors out of the Keys, and as hotels, motels and vacation rentals were forced to close, the revenue stream dwindled to the hundreds of thousands.
By July, however, a month after the bans on vacation rentals were lifted and the checkpoints gone, the Keys were among the few destinations hot spots nationwide and internationally open for business, and bed tax revenue shows tourists looking to escape the doldrums of their states’ lockdowns charted a course for the archipelago.
That month, the county collected $3.2 million. Come January, when South Florida’s tourist season kicks into high gear, Monroe collected more than $5.2 million from its lodging constituents — more than it did the same month in 2020, well before COVID became a significant concern for sun seekers.
Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn in Key West is booked well into the summer, said Phil Amsterdam, an owner.
“This summer, we’ve got a lot of new business,” added Amsterdam. “People who are just getting ready to come down here. I think we’re getting all the cruise people, too.”
He noted that Key West hotels in general are booked solid.
“Everybody’s full,” Amsterdam said. “The hotels are maxing out this month.”
Many businesses in Key West are setting some records, said Paul Menta, who owns the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery.
It’s the opposite scenario from a year ago when the Keys were closed to tourists, with the county placing roadblocks at the entrances to the island chain.
“The shutdown, it sucked,” Menta said. “But we made an investment and now look at our future. I say we’re going to have a good run right through next winter and then competition is going to show up. Right now, we’re the only game in town.”
Businesses up and down the island chain have benefited from the surge in tourism.
Elizabeth Moscynski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said March was the busiest month she’s seen for local lodgings since she signed on with the business group seven years ago.
“Every weekend in March, our chamber members were sold out. Even leading up to the weekends, hotels were close to being 90% occupied during the week,” she said.
According to Moscynski, Key Largo hotels and motels were so full, people calling the chamber looking to take advantage of cheap flights were out of luck trying to find a place to stay.
“Even our local hotels were calling us to help extend their stay,” she said.
The trend looks like it will continue into this month and beyond, according to Moscynski.
“Even June is looking great, and the Fourth of July is almost sold out,” she said.
In Islamorada — the five island incorporated village between Plantation Key to the north and Teatable Key to the south — hotel and motel operators are reporting high occupancy rates and record sales numbers, said Judy Hull, director of the local Chamber of Commerce.
The crowds are welcome, she said, after the economic damage businesses endured starting beginning late last March, when historically there is still a couple of months left in the lucrative winter tourism season. Even with the recent banner business, the pain from those months is still felt by many, Hull said.
There’s still cautious optimism among local proprietors that word has gotten out about the Keys, and it will remain a prime destination for tourists into the summer.
“Everyone is hoping it will continue after Easter and all of the spring breaks end,” Hull said. “It will take a while to make up for the sales lost in 2020.”