TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott would like to see storm-battered Key West “open for business” within two weeks, but tourism officials marketing the southern end of U.S. 1 indicate it could take longer.
Some tourism hot spots have started to reopen in the Lower Keys, as electricity is back for more than 90 percent of Monroe County. However, the Keys' tourism website at midday Thursday continued to advise travelers with “near-term” reservations to contact airlines and hotels to change plans.
“Some areas of the Keys are likely to be ready to accommodate visitors before others,” the website said. “An exact reopening date for all regions is not yet known, but Key West city officials expect their island could open by Fantasy Fest, the annual costume and masking festival that is set to start Friday, Oct. 20.”
Residents and business owners have been allowed back in, but the tourism website noted “some regions of the Keys were impacted more than others and damage at Keys accommodations' facilities varies from no impacts, except for landscaping, to severe damage because of storm surge.”
Meanwhile, state restoration efforts continued in Monroe County and other areas hard hit by Hurricane Irma, which made initial landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys.
Transportation officials reinstated toll collections statewide on Thursday after suspending tolls Sept. 5 to help speed traffic during evacuations. But the suspension of tolls has remained in place from the Homestead extension of Florida's Turnpike south to assist Monroe County residents.
Department of Transportation crews also continued to clear debris from arterial roads in Monroe County.
A boil-water notice remained in place for the lower Keys.
On Monday, Scott discussed a desire for a quick turnaround in the effort to restore one of Florida's major tourism draws.
“So many people make money off of tips and things like that, so we've got to figure out how we get our tourists back as quickly as we can,” Scott said Monday during an interview on U.S. 1 Radio 104.1 FM, a station based in the Lower Keys. “My goal is that by the first of October, we're open for business. And we're going to do everything we can to help the locals to do that.”
The state's tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, reaffirmed an Oct. 1 goal on Thursday. This week, Visit Florida rolled out a $4 million to $5 million post-hurricane marketing plan that will include a component focused on the Keys “once our partners there have indicated they are ready to welcome visitors back.”
The state, which before Irma was on pace to top last year's 113 million visitors, has not calculated the hurricane's potential economic impact on the tourism industry.
In a prepared statement, Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson described the marketing plan as one that will showcase “sunshine, blue skies and good times.”
The online and broadcast campaign is expected to run for about a month, leading into Visit Florida's traditional winter marketing.
The Key West area is starting to get some good news towards its recovery.
Royal Caribbean International announced Thursday that its cruise ships can start making calls into Key West starting Sunday.
“With both Havana and Key West ready, and excited to welcome us, we are now able to offer the Royal Caribbean vacation guests are looking forward to,” Royal Caribbean posted online.
Also, commercial air service was restored for residents and relief workers Wednesday at Key West International Airport.