Record crowds pack tourist sites after COVID restrictions – Sun Sentinel

For Floridians, summer is OUR time in the Keys. The islands are meant to be easy to get to, free from winter crowds, relaxed and economical.

Not so this summer. Tourists are packing the archipelago, forcing hotel rates to skyrocket and creating long waits at restaurants and landmarks.

“Every tourist attraction has a long line,” said Dara Krauss of Boca Raton, who visited Key West and Islamorada last week with her son, Jackson, 23, who just graduated from college. “Stations were full and hotel prices were high. There was almost nothing to be had. »

Krauss said his family typically travels overseas each summer, but is staying closer to home this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. “We do a lot of little trips to the United States,” she said.

Hotel and business owners say many tourists tell them the same thing. Several countries, including Canada, are still closed to most Americans. Those allowing Americans could close their borders at any time depending on the spread of COVID. And traveling abroad can require long periods of mask-wearing and other inconvenience, including virus testing before entering the country and before leaving.

At the same time, airlines have eased access to the Keys, creating an incentive to head south. Allegiant, American, Delta, Silver, JetBlue and United began offering new nonstop flights to Key West International Airport in June. The airport had already seen record passenger numbers earlier this year, even as Florida reported a 14% drop in tourism statewide.

As visitors flood the Keys this summer, consumer costs are skyrocketing. The average daily hotel rate in 2019 was $288 per night; now it’s $385, according to the Keys’ Tourist Development Council. In May, the islands recorded a record hotel occupancy of 83.6%; Key West hit 91.3% with an average daily hotel fee of $412.38, a figure the tourism board called “staggering.”

These shocking costs do not seem to deter visitors. Marathon Pontoon Rental, which offers daily boat trips starting at $279, is fully booked in July and August.

The Hemingway House and Museum, where writer Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s and wrote some of his most famous novels, receives 600 to 800 visitors a day, an unusually high number for the summer, said spokesperson Alexa Morgan. Guided tours depart every 20 minutes to welcome the hordes.

“We had our best June in many years,” Morgan said. “It’s usually low season now, but it’s more like the crowds we get in the winter.”

The restaurants also describe their best business in years.

“We’re significantly up from last year, more towards 2019 numbers,” said Nick Rodriguez, chief executive of Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo.

Ronald Skrumbellos, owner of Hobo’s Cafe in Key Largo, said his typical busy season runs from Christmas to Easter. But, “it’s been non-stop since Valentine’s Day,” he said.

Skrumbellos said it had to raise some prices because its costs had increased, especially for beef and chicken wings, he said. Crowds still come, he said, with typical waits of 20 minutes for lunch and up to 45 minutes for dinner on weekends.

To cope with crowds and a shortage of staff, Skrumbellos said he resorted to the restaurant’s phone because he decided his team should prioritize restaurant customers over take-out orders. .

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “But it’s self-preservation.”

Sheldon Suga, vice president and general manager of Hawks Cay Resort in Duck Key, said his surge in guest numbers consisted mostly of Floridians, but also families from as far away as Ohio. Room rates start at over $500 a night this month, according to the hotel’s website.

Suga noted that costs for hotels have increased exponentially since COVID shut down many businesses that had to reopen with new limitations. Staff are understaffed and given higher salaries as an incentive to stay, while cleaning protocols have become more complicated and labor-intensive, Suga said. He said food prices have also risen, including 60% increases in some beef products in recent months.

Rick Savage, owner of Key West Sandbar Trips, said he was tempted to raise his rates this summer, but he resisted. It charges $550 for a four-hour trip for up to four people. The company subscribed 85 groups in May, 121 in June and 130 are registered for July.

“All of this is the result of COVID. People are finally allowed out,” he said. “If the community wants to keep tourism, why would you raise your prices? You will lose the business. Other charters are furious with me, but I think we have to be reasonable about this.

If you decide to vacation in the Keys in 2021 this summer, here are some tips to avoid the hordes and enjoy a reasonably priced trip:

Leave for the day. This way you don’t have to pay the high hotel costs. A drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo only takes an hour and 40 minutes.

Bring yours fishing gear, kayaking and snorkeling gear and pack a picnic lunch.

Visit a park, such as John Pennekamp Coral Reef or Bahia Honda State Parks. Admission is $8 per vehicle. Arrive early; both open at 8am

wait end august or later. Florida students return to school between mid and late August. Hoteliers and concessionaires say they expect prices to start falling around that date.