Tourism returns to Miami with some roadblocks

As vaccines make their way across the country, Miami is experiencing tourism growth. But, although crowds of spring-breakers flocked to the city’s beaches in March, local experts have said there are still obstacles preventing the industry from reaching pre-pandemic levels.

While leisure and luxury bookings are steadily increasing, business travel likely won’t return to normal until at least 2022– and maybe even 2023, said Wendy Kallergis, president and CEO of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association.

Business travel and hotel bookings grow when companies come to town for large corporate meetings. And although some conventions are planned, including those by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the Bitcoin community, most corporations are undecided on when and how to bring employees back to an in-person workspace. 

Still, Kallergis is satisfied with the industry’s trend toward recovery, which is accelerating more now than it was a few months ago.

“I would like to say that the worst is over,” Kallergis said. “It kind of went up and down depending on what was happening with COVID. Now, with the vaccines available– I think that’s really going to help keep it steady. I don’t imagine that we’ll go down again.”

According to Miami-Dade daily recovery indexes, air travel on April 3 was at 73% of its historical levels, dining was at 124.5%, and hotel bookings were at 97.8%. That’s much better than Dec. 14, when the first vaccine was administered in the United States. Back then, air travel was at 42.8%, dining at 69.9% and hotel bookings at 58.3%.

Kallergis expects this growth to continue in coming months, with vaccines now available to people as young as 16.

Juan Carlos Liscano, the American Airlines vice president for Miami, the Caribbean and Latin America, said that by May, the airline within the city will be operating at over 80% of its 2019 business.

But, he added, it’s important to note that demand picked up before vaccines were widely available– “as countries began opening up their borders and customers were eager to fly home and connect with their loved ones.”

The chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Rolando Aedo, attributes growth to other factors such as educational marketing campaigns on COVID-19 safety precautions– as well as “pandemic fatigue” felt by people stuck at home for months. Even before the majority of adults were eligible to receive a vaccine, he believes its mere presence fueled the industry.

“Traveler confidence plays a role,” Aedo said. “So even when those 65 and up were getting vaccinated– that already psychologically, if not practically, started to give travelers peace of mind.” 

He also said hotel bookings should rise significantly once cruises begin to sail again. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the CDC, demanding that they allow cruises to reopen.

But no matter what is causing all of this growth in the industry, it’s happening– and some hotels aren’t ready.

Aedo said many hotels were not anticipating such a quick recovery. The industry let go of approximately 90% of its employees at the beginning of the pandemic, and now it’s having trouble getting them back. Some have even capped the number of rooms they’re allowing to be booked.

“It’s not that people don’t want to stay at the hotels,” he said. “Ironically, it’s about finding the employees that can properly service their guests. These people needed to find other jobs, and sometimes they paid more. There’s a lot of competition right now for workers.”

As a result, the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association has been promoting a series of job fairs held by hotels in need. They’ve been announcing these on their LinkedIn page, some even offering signing bonuses as an incentive for workers.

But that hasn’t stopped new hotels and restaurants from popping up around the city. And Aedo said three recently added domestic airlines are flying in and out of Miami, including Eastern, JetBlue and Southwest.

“We’re very encouraged to be seeing what we’re seeing,” he said. “Tourism is the industry that fuels other industries, so we feel tremendous pressure to keep this momentum going. It’s our responsibility to do so.”

Samantha Morell loves to write, draw, take pictures, dance and travel. These are interests she aims to incorporate in her career and lifestyle. She is studying journalism and philosophy at FIU because she believes both subjects make her receptive to new information, as she hopes to always be learning.