How Does The Marine Tourism Industry Fare?
By Nick Honachefsky
COVID-19 needs no introduction. The pandemic sent the world into a spiral, affecting industries and businesses large and small on an unprecedented level. The marine outdoor industry consisting of fishing, diving, snorkeling and traveling was not exempt from its reach, and it was affected on all levels, from cancelled airline travel to shuttered hotel accommodations to restaurants closings, putting the marine tourism industry into a tailspin. While all seemed negative, and most of it was, there was some positive light shone on the marine industry as well — sort of a pearl among the oysters that clamped down around us.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Let’s start with the good.
Since lockdown quarantines were in effect for most coastal states March through May, there was no saltwater fishing or diving pressure; as a result, fish stocks seemed to have rebounded. As of now, there is no real time scientific data to support this, but dockside talk from striped bass anglers in New Jersey to redfish anglers in Florida all seemed to trend toward positive, if not reporting impressive fishing from June onward. Vacationing was also out of the question, and while bad for business, coral reefs had less diving and boating pressure, equating to fewer pollutants and less disturbance in the waters. Waters that had been tainted for decades appeared to be clearing up. It also seems that contiguous U.S. lodges fared better than international destinations; United States citizens could navigate state-by-state laws regarding quarantine parameters instead of more dire foreign constraints, allowing some U.S. coastal businesses to thrive. Boat companies have seen unprecedented sales as more people are seeing the benefit of convenient access to nature near their homes.
Of course there’s the resounding bad — death tolls and cases worldwide were staggering. When it comes to business in the marine tourism industry, COVID threw a wet blanket on a hot industry; some found ways to succeed, others didn’t.
That leads me to the ugly. Many businesses either weren’t “qualified” for government subsidies or simply didn’t have enough equity at stake to weather the COVID repercussions. That meant a lot of businesses in the travel industry had to shut their doors permanently. Tourism industry workers have had to look for new jobs in construction, finance, etc.
We asked a few national and international marine tourism locales and lodges how COVID has affected them. Here’s what we got:
Ozzy Delgado, VP Sales and Marketing for Pacific Fins in Guatemala, had a heartfelt statement on his lodge’s challenges. “This year has been so challenging, so it is more important than ever to look to find the things we are grateful for. If we decide to call this year a wash and let it go down in history as awful, with nothing of merit coming out of it, then we lose. If we learned something new or just got to slow down a bit and really live in the moment, and recognize that, we win. It’s amazing to see how many people traveled to Pacific Fins to not only show their support, but to enjoy a little bit of normalcy. All in all, our team gained a perspective on the importance of fishing, friendships, relationships and communication.”
BUD N’ MARYS
Richard Stanczyk of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada said: “Business is the best it’s ever been.” But as Stanczyk noted, it didn’t start off that way. “Originally, the Keys were shut down for a short period of time and there was no business, but the bailouts with the Payroll Protection Program helped us survive. When we reopened up, there was a mass exodus from the cities in New York and Midwest where people didn’t have to work in their city offices anymore, so we had an influx of people to the area that stayed for months at a time, escaping the cities. We have more traffic now and it’s hard to find a hotel room, but those problems aren’t bad. We didn’t have the hit other businesses did as we could still run six-pack charters, dive ops and the like; it was just as the holiday season is year-round now.”
Jessica Harvey stated that the complete lockdown at the start of COVID was brutal. “Nobody could swim, go to the beach or even get to their boat as helicopters were flying around to patrol.” As Jessica states, her father, Guy Harvey, has been “stuck at home in Cayman as long as he can remember.” Tourism is suffering as she estimates it’s down by 50%, many water sports closed down and employees let go, and she says it’s been “extremely tough” for everyone.
But there has been some good news. “The positive is that we are seeing island residents ‘staycationing’ among the sister islands of Cayman Brac, Little Cayman and Grand Cayman, which is helping the economy. The residents are touring their own islands now.”
The Cayman marine ecosystem also has benefited. “The most prolific change has been the lack of disturbance. For all the creatures, it was quiet, no boat traffic, and I talked to people who say the fish had adapted to making louder noises due to boat traffic and now have softer calls as they don’t have to compete with unnatural noise. Animal behavior at Stingray City has changed, and it’s more vibrant with species, including blacktip sharks and nurse sharks, frequenting the area more because of the lack of noise. Starfish Point used to see four or five, and now we see 100. The starfish used to stay more offshore when boats anchored up in the shallows, now they have moved back in closer to the shore. The impact of the reduced human presence is palpable.”
So where does COVID-19 leave the marine tourism industry? Only time will tell what businesses survive, although overall it appears that the reduced human pressure on nature has had an overriding beneficial impact to the ecosystem. Perhaps once the pandemic has passed, we will come to a sustainable equilibrium that benefits both our marine tourism industry and its environmental and animal counterparts.