January 9, 2019

MONROE COUNTY — Snarled-up traffic along U.S. 1 between Christmas and New Year’s Day, while frustrating for travelers, was good news for local merchants.

The consensus of Florida Keys business leaders is that the peak busy week bookended by the holidays was booming, especially when compared to the year before when the islands were still reeling from Hurricane Irma.

At that time, only 70 percent of the Keys’ total lodging stock was available. Big Pine Key couldn’t even determine its lodging availability due to the extensive storm damage.

Things have significantly improved since then.

“It was bumper to bumper from the Seven Mile Bridge all the way through to Big Pine,” Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dave Turner said last week. “A lot of the stores were busy and the locals complained about the traffic. It took 15 minutes to get home instead of the five that it normally takes.”

He expects more seasonal residents to arrive by the end of the month, which, when combined with the traditional winter-spring tourist season, will further boost the local economy.

Turner said a few people stopped in the visitor center over the holidays trying to find last-minute lodging. All the hotels that he called were full, he said, but lodging in the area still isn’t 100 percent back online.

Sugarloaf Key Kampground of America, Little Palm Inn and the Big Pine Fishing Lodge remain closed 15 months after Irma.

Islamorada Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Judy Hull said that retailers, restaurants and resorts had a great peak week and worked aggressive hours to meet visitor needs.

“Shooting from the hip, I think that we probably matched 2016 in business. We went back to our normal numbers,” Hull said. “Our hotels were full even though we still do have a few rooms offline. The restaurants, the resorts, we were all busy.”

The Post Card Inn and the Chesapeake Beach Resort still have a few units not being offered, she said.

“Out of 1,300, we are around 1,150 to 1,200. We’re getting there. We’re close,” Hull said. Last year, only 32 percent of the town’s lodges were open.

Traffic had eased up by the first weekend in January, but Hull expects the remainder of tourist season to be consistently busy and more profitable than last year.

Key Largo Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director Elizabeth Moczynski said the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was busier than the last two years.

“Our visitor numbers did increase over last year and the year before,” she said. “Traffic was heavy most of the week, and nearly all the hotels were sold out. Restaurants appeared to do well too.”

She said the visitor center has been fielding a lot of calls from vacationers from New York, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona and Texas, and many will be traveling to the Keys in the next few weeks.

“It’s another positive sign of a good season to come,” Moczynski said.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council reports that tourism is a $2.7 billion annual industry in the Keys, accounting for 60 percent of all spending and 54 percent of all jobs.

tjava@keysnews.com