It's back to business in the Sunshine State

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The beaches have been restored and most attractions have reopened in Miami Beach.
The beaches have been restored and most attractions have reopened in Miami Beach.

It's been five weeks since Hurricane Irma set its sights on Florida, prompting unprecedented evacuations and raising fears that it would land a devastating blow to the Sunshine State's tourism industry. But while the storm did a significant amount of damage, it did not produce the worst-case scenario some were expecting: the state for the most part has returned to business as usual. Here's what you can expect when planning travel for your clients.

The Florida Keys officially reopened to visitors on Oct. 1, and Key West has come back strong. The Key West and Marathon airports are fully operational, and the port of Key West is hosting cruise ships.

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway has passed inspection and is easily drivable throughout the 125-mile island chain. Hotelier Brad Weiser spoke to me by phone and told me he made the drive from Miami to Key West last week and reported that it took same amount of time as it did before the storm. "But you see a lot of devastation passing through the Keys that were more directly impacted. It can be a little misleading," he said. It should be noted that the Starbucks at Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina in Islamorada reopened and is the last Starbucks for 83 miles for travelers driving to Key West.

A number of Keys events scheduled for mid- to late October — including Key West's Fantasy Fest, Marathon's Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo's Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.

However, recovery efforts are ongoing, especially in the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon that were hardest hit by the storm. Notable hotels that remain closed include Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a Noble House Resort on Little Torch Key, whose website reports it is currently focused on helping its displaced employees.

The Hilton Key Largo has not yet announced its reopening but does report that its guestrooms fared well. The Playa Largo Resort Key Largo's newest, is open.

Islamorada's lodging is perhaps the hardest hit. According to Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, only 275 of Islamorada's 1,300 hotel rooms are currently available. "I expect half of our total inventory to be ready by the time we hit our season in January," said Hull. Islamorada's hotels are worse off then those of Key West, Key Largo and even Marathon due to the large number of oceanfront rooms damaged by storm surge. Islamorada's restaurants are all open, and Hull said she expects all watersports amenities to be fully operational by January.

Hull recommends that travel agents seeking lodging for clients call the Chamber directly at (305) 664-4503. "We can tell you on a day-by-day basis what we have online. We also know the properties well and can give information on what will best suit their parties."

Hawk's Cay Resort remains closed and has not announced its reopening date.

B Hotel's Banana Bay Resort & Marina in Marathon is open but without its pool, cable television and the daily Continental breakfast. The property is waiving its standard resort fee until guest amenities are returned to normal.

After the Keys sustained a direct hit, Irma moved farther west, making landfall for the second time at Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane. Known as the Paradise Coast, the area, which also includes Naples and the Everglades, is getting back to normal. According to the website ParadiseCoast.com, "Most of our hotels have reopened, businesses are up and running and visitors are enjoying the beaches, shopping, attractions and dining in our many locally owned restaurants."

The site confirms that the annual Stone Crab Festival will take place Oct. 27 to 29 along the Old Naples Waterfront.

Naples Restaurant Week is slated for Nov. 30 to Dec. 13, with more than 40 area restaurants offering prix-fixe menus. For a list of individual hotels that remain closed, along with their opening dates and a list of attractions that are open, go to www.paradisecoast.com/emergency.

Everglades National Park Main Park Road reopened on Oct. 7 but with extremely limited services and warnings to mariners about missing navigation signs and underwater hazards.

Reports up the west coast remain positive in places like Sarasota, Tampa, St. Pete Beach, Clearwater and points north. The Panhandle was not impacted by Irma.

Orlando bounced back immediately, with the major theme parks reopening on the Tuesday following the Sunday storm. In the wake of Irma, Legoland Florida Resort and Merlin's Magic Wand have donated 20,000 tickets to Florida kids affected by Hurricane Irma.

Miami and South Beach are mostly back to business as usual. The only South Beach hotel that is reported to remain closed due to Irma damage is the Ritz-Carlton South Beach.

On Miami Beach, there is virtually no impact for leisure travelers, says Peggy Benua, board chair of Miami Beach Visitor & Convention Authority as well as the general manager of the Dream South Beach Hotel. Benua reports that the beaches were restored within days of the storm and that most attractions and amenities are either open or about to reopen, such as the Miami Seaquarium on Oct. 13 and Jungle Island, which remains closed until further notice.

Benua reports that Art Basel has committed to five more years in Miami Beach, "which speaks to the international and domestic traveler who has faith in our destination. Miami Beach is very resilient, and we have the infrastructure in place to deal with these events."

The world-renowned art event is slated for Dec. 7 to 10 this year.

"We're anticipating a stronger season this year than last year. Miami Beach is a good alternative for guests not able to go to other warm weather destinations this season," said Benua.

Moving on up the East Coast, hotels and amenities are all open from Fort Lauderdale through the Palm Beaches and all the way up to Jacksonville and Amelia Island. Jacksonville did suffer storm surge but it primarily impacted residential areas.

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