Key West plans to be tourism-ready on Oct. 20

Seven Mile Bridge, Florida Keys
All bridges in the Florida Keys have been declared drivable, including the famous Seven Mile Bridge. Photo Credit: Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock

Key West has set an Oct. 20 target date for reopening the Florida Keys city to visitors, said Andy Newman, who heads media relations for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

"It could be sooner, but that is a date that everyone is comfortable with," Newman told Travel Weekly on Wednesday.

Oct. 20 marks the beginning of Fantasy Fest, perhaps the biggest event on the Key West calendar.

Hurricane Irma made landfall on Cudjoe Key, 20 miles to the east of Key West, on Sept. 10 as a Category 4 storm. The hurricane washed out sections of the Overseas Highway that runs through the 125-mile-long island chain, making communications with the mainland difficult and delaying assessments of hotel properties.

As of Wednesday, only Keys residents who live in the Upper Keys areas of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada had been allowed to return.

Nevertheless, county officials have said that all 42 Keys bridges remain drivable, so transit won't be a long-term impediment to the resumption of tourism.

Newman said that from all that he has heard, the hotels of Key West weathered the storm without significant structural damage.

He said he had heard less about the hotels further up the island chain, though he added that there are reports of a few small motels that were flooded on Grassy Key, just north of the city of Marathon.

For the most part, hotels on Key Largo appeared to be in reasonably good stead on Tuesday, though all were shuttered as Monroe County has yet to allow visitors back into the county. The Hilton Key Largo, a resort undergoing a major renovation, had minor roof damage.

Newman said that Key West was fortunate to have been on the weaker, left side of Irma as it passed over the Keys.

"This destination will come back. No doubt about that," he said.

In the Naples/Marco Island area, where Irma made its U.S. mainland landfall, the short-term picture for tourism is looking rosier. According to Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, the largest on Marco Island, will be ready to check in guests on Oct. 2. The JW Marriott's restaurants are open with limited hours. Smaller hotels on Marco are closed until further notice.

The major hotels along the Naples beachfront, including the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, Ritz-Carlton Naples, Naples Grande Beach Resort and LaPlaya Beach Resort & Golf Club all escaped significant structural damage. A storm surge that was predicted to be 10 feet or more stayed below five feet when Irma suddenly veered inland. 

Wert said the Naples Beach Hotel is likely to reopen this weekend. And he expects the overall Naples tourist infrastructure to be fully functional within a couple weeks once cleanups have been completed and power is restored throughout Collier County.

One Naples icon that did take some damage is the Naples Pier, which is located at the end of the town's main commercial street, 5th Avenue. The pier is presently closed for inspection, but Wert said that he doesn't believe the damage is enough to cause it to collapse.

"It should reopen," he said.

Just up I-75 in Fort Myers, the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau began doing hotel site visits on Wednesday. Early indications were good, said executive director Tamara Pigott, but they don't yet know whether any hotels had taken major damage from Irma.

"Literally we are knocking on doors," she said, noting the problems caused by power outages and down communications networks.

Correction: The JW Marriott Marco Island won't open until Oct. 2.

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