COVID-19 travel restrictions keeping some seasonal residents away

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Travel restrictions are keeping seasonal residents away from SWFL and impacting

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Travel restrictions are keeping seasonal residents away from SWFL and impacting the local economy.

Much like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford did, Muriel Sasia visits Southwest Florida a few times a year.

“I love the beach, specifically sunsets on the beach,” Sasia said.

Sasia is a French resident living in Nice. She owns a home in Fort Myers. 

“In June I booked a ticket thinking well by September you know this thing will be done now, we’ve got tests,” Sasia said.

That thing she’s talking about is the global pandemic, which has led to federal governments imposing travel suspensions between the US, France and several other countries.

“So I’m so stuck. I cannot come you know,” Sasia said.

Sasia said she has gone back and forth with the US Embassy, but they told her without citizenship or a green card, she’s not eligible for any exemptions so she’s still an ocean and almost 5,000 miles away.

“It’s really frustrating you know. I do understand I’m a doctor so I know about the virus and I know about the risks,  but there are ways you know,” she said.

As Muriel misses her friends, family and good times in Fort Myers, the community misses her.

“I would play golf, I would go to a restaurant, I would do lots of shopping,” she said.

International visitors leave their mark on Lee County in many ways, certainly when it comes to economics. 

“In fact in 2019, 14 percent of our visitors came from the international markets,” said Tamara Pigott, The Executive Director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “More importantly, international visitors tend to stay a little longer and they tend to spend a little more, so it’s about 21% of visitor expenditures.”

And these numbers are just for visitors staying in hotels and other lodging sites, not including those who own property.

“This is tough on our hoteliers, this is tough on our local businesses and it’s tough on the community in terms of jobs,” Pigott said. 

These temporary travel bans and the pandemic overall are having a devastating impact, yet to be fully felt with season upon us. 

“We’re only seeing about a third of the visitors that we usually see this time a year,” said Lisa Wilson, Public Relations Director for the Edison and Ford Estates.

Wilson said sales at The Estates, which is a nonprofit, are down 69 percent, and the international visitors are deeply missed. 

“We usually see a lot of European visitors during the summer months and the Canadian visitors start coming down around this time,” Wilson said. 

In 2019, European visitors alone spent $472 million in Lee County according to the VCB’s 2019 Visitor Tracking, Occupancy & Economic Impact Study. That money came from 403,965 people. According to the study, Canadians represented 216,762 visitors who spent a total of $218 million. 

“Those are tough numbers to make up in any business model,” Pigott said. 

To make up for that money, Pigott said the VCB is focusing its work on other markets where people are willing and able to travel. 

“We’re trying to subsidize those international visitors with domestic visitors,” she said. 

One piece of good news, Pigott said Lee County is seeing more visitors from around the state and the US. 

“In fact, there are probably people that travel internationally as Floridians that instead are doing in-state vacations,” she said. 

Pigott said tourism losses won’t affect you as a taxpayer – not only because Lee County saw a good first quarter of 2019 and an increase in local visitors during some months, but also because of how TDC taxes work. 

“The bed tax as it’s commonly called has very specific uses. It’s allocated to beach and shoreline enhancement, it’s allocated to pay services on the stadium and about half of it goes to the marketing effort that’s the VCB operations,” Pigott said.

Just like other businesses and households, they’ve had to make cuts. 

“As revenue dropped, we dropped our expenses,” said Pigott.

As for Sasia, she said she feels it’s unfair the federal government is treating her like a tourist when she does pay local taxes and is willing to take any safety measures needed to travel here.

“I’m missing this freedom of movement. It’s really frustrating and difficult because I’ve got no idea when it’s going to stop,” she said.

Her family members who are in Fort Myers are just as upset. 

“It’s sad and I think you shouldn’t be so far from your family for such a long time,” said Sasia’s cousin, Nathalie Morzaniga.

Although this is having such an impact on so many people and industries, it’s still just a waiting game. 

“What has to change is we have to get the pandemic under control, that’s the key thing here. There’s really nothing we can do until those borders open,” Pigott said. 

For now, Muriel and her loved ones have to stick to talking through a screen as they hold onto hope that soon things will change.

Local tourism leaders are just as hopeful.

“When people are able and confident in travel they will come back here. This is a special spot in many people’s hearts,” Pigott said.

ABC7 reached out to the US Department of Homeland Security to ask whether they’re working on any new exemptions or updates to travel restrictions, but the agency has not responded.