After Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys in September 2017, the island chain saw a drop in visitors. Now the primary industry in the Keys is back — and it's booming.
The county collected more than $39 million in a 4 percent tax on hotel rooms and other tourist lodging. That's the most in recorded history.
The money is supposed to be spend on the ads that promote the Keys as a tourist destination, as well as supporting events and capital projects that tourists use, like museums.
The record comes two years after Hurricane Irma swept across the Keys as a Category 4 storm. The eye crossed the Lower Keys, which suffered the most severe damage, but the effects were felt throughout the island chain. Islamorada, in the Upper Keys, had most of its hotel rooms taken out of commission.
Stacey Mitchell, director of marketing for the Tourist Development Council, said as hotel rooms became available again, a lot of repeat visitors returned.
"This is their annual holiday to the keys, it's a generational thing, so there was a lot of pent up demand," she said.
One major factor in the increase in the tax collection is high room rates. Hotel owners lost money right after the storm, and many spent a lot of money rebuilding afterwards.
According to Smith Travel Research, room rates in the Keys average $285 a night in 2019 so far. In Key West, the average rate is $297, spiking to $385 in March.
Hotel owners would "like to recapture some of the revenue lost and they'd also like to recapture some of the investment that they put into their product. Because it is brand new and of a different level," Mitchell said.
Mitchell says she expects another strong tourist season ahead, as long as consumer confidence stays high, but she's not forecasting big growth in occupancy or revenue.
One travel guide is recommending that tourists stay away from the island chain. Fodors Travel website put the Keys on its "no" list for the year ahead, saying the area has "sickly coral reefs in need of healing."
Mitchell says the TDC asked Keys chambers of commerce to keep track of any phone calls, and the agency has been monitoring emails and social media to see if that listing was having an effect.
"It has been minimal. We have not been able to verify any negative consumer reaction towards the story," she said.
Mitchell says locals are very aware of the need to protect the environment, and want it to be their for their children and grandchildren.
"And we're also very aware of how important these natural resources are for our visitors but also for our own personal livelihoods," she said.
Mitchell says the Keys tourism agency has given more than $3 million to support environmental restoration programs like coral nurseries.