Coronavirus may be increasing tourism

Beach Rafts 2
Cindy Lane | Sun

ANNA MARIA ISLAND – While COVID-19 is causing canceled cruises, the shutdown of Disney World and widespread anxiety about venturing far from home, it may also be causing an unexpected uptick in Island tourism.

Some tourists have canceled their plans to visit the Island, but others – including stranded cruise ship passengers – are coming unexpectedly, said Terri Kinder, president of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of these people already planned their vacation, and the rest of the family has already set aside the days, so they have to go now,” she said, adding that vacancies still exist as of this weekend.

Mid-March is the peak of the Island’s tourist season, and crowded beaches, congested roads and an increase in spring breakers caused by the coronavirus-inspired extension of spring break attest that visitation is at normal to above-normal levels.

“We’re not alarmed at this time of the year,” said Elliott Falcione, director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In fact, he said, people in densely-populated cities like New York and Boston are saying, “‘We’re going to get out of here and come to a safe place.’ They believe the beaches are safer than the dense city.”

European visitors are booked for summer and fall, Falcione said, adding that the CVB’s London office is currently monitoring the perception of prospective overseas visitors.

“We’re going to take this one day at a time,” he said.

Some airlines are addressing the health crisis by offering hospital-caliber filtration systems on board the aircraft, Falcione said.

“If I had to fly, I wouldn’t be concerned,” he said. “Just keep your hands from your face and keep your hands clean.”

While some visitation has been lost with canceled airline flights, it has been regained or exceeded by more people driving to Manatee County, he said.

“People within driving distance who had plans to fly are coming here,” agreed Bill Annis, of Island Vacation Properties, adding that the company has had some cancelations from other countries.

Although rental agents are fielding calls and questions all day long, “It hasn’t been horrible for us,” he said, with March booked solidly. “Overall, it’s leveling out for us.”

“It’s a little bit of a hodgepodge,” said Lisa Spehar, of Island Real Estate. People within driving distance from Tampa and Orlando are calling to book rooms because kids on spring break are unexpectedly out of school longer due to coronavirus concerns, she said.

But fears about the virus and its impact on the stock market caused at least one visitor who returns to the Island annually to cancel, she said, while some visitors who normally book a year in advance have said they don’t want to commit to visit next year because of uncertainty about the virus.

“We believe our customers will come back,” Falcione said.

A tourism update is scheduled for the Monday, March 30 Tourist Development Council meeting at 9 a.m. at the Honorable Patricia M. Glass Chambers at the Manatee County Administration Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W. in Bradenton.