Despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew south of Miami, the tourism industry of the Greater Miami has bounced back quickly, and tourists are actively being courted.
On Miami Beach the neon lights are glittering again in the historic Art Deco Destrict, which has become one of the nation's hottest getaway destinations. The district's trendy little ocean-front hotels have reopened, the sidewalk cafes are back in business and the fashionable beach crowd is returning.
Fortunately, most of the Greater Miami area's tourist attractions, including all but a small portion of its beaches, escaped any substantial damage, and repairs where needed were launched immediatley. By last count at mid-week, 110 of the 115 hotels belonging to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau were open for guests.
Outlying destinations, such as Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach to the north and the Florida Keys to the south, suffered minimal damage and are welcoming tourists. The city of Naples, on Florida's west coast, is also in good shape. By the time Andrew crossed the Florida peninsula, its ferocious winds had weakend, and little damage occurred.
In many areas, the only signs of damage that a visitor might spot are palms stripped of fronds or bare tree branches.
But a few Greater Miami attractions, including the popular Metrozoo, took far more severe blows and remain closed. The zoo, which los its Wings of Asia tropical-bird aviary, is not expected to reopen for six months or perhaps even longer. Everglades and Biscayne national parks, which stood in the hurricane's path, are still shut down.
Ironically, in some parts of the city near the hurricane's path, hotels are full or nearly full, and reservations may be hard to get for a while.
Some storm victims who lost their homes have moved into temporary hotel lodgings, and other rooms are occupied by relief workers, utility-repair staffs and insurance adjusters working on hurricane recovery. Hotel occupancy is about 72 percent currently.
As the south Miami area begins its long, slow recovery from Andrew, tourism officials in Miami and the state capital of Tallahassee have launched a worldwide promotional campaign to convince visitors that Florida and Miami are ready to welcome them.
Tourism is of major importance to the local economy. If tourists don't come, says Merrett R. Stierheim, president of the convention and visitors bureau, Andrew will have "scored a second hit" on Miami by depriving it of needed income.
Last year, more than 8 million tourists visited the Greater Miami area, and they pumped an estimated $7.2 billion into the local economy, according to Stierheim. About one-third of the area's workforce is directly or indirectly involoved in the tourism industry. If tourists stay away, hotel employees, waiters and waitresses and others could lose their jobs.
"It's a delicate message we're delivering," says Stierheim. "We must always keep our focus on the needy and the homeless. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy if potential visitors think they can't come here in comfort and safety the way they could before Andrew."
He sees no conflict in out-of-towners enjoying themselves in the sun while thousands of Dade County residents try to rebuild their shattered lives. "Exactly the opposite is true," he says. "People who come to Miami would be helping people by preserving their jobs, by preserving the economy, which is in jeopardy."
He and other Miami officials appeared on national television to spread the word, and they will soon travel abroad to do the same. And even while Andrew still raged across the tip of Florida, the state's Division of Tourism kept its numerous foreign-based tourism offices updated frequently on developments. The state maintains offices in Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. About 55 percent of Greater Miami's visitors come from outside the United States.
A 60-second video depicting sunbronzed throngs enjoying Miami's beaches after the hurricane has been sent to hundreds of travel agents and convention planners.
City and state officials say one of their big problems is overcoming the public's geographical misconception. Apparently some prospective visitors have phoned tourism offices thinking much of the state and the entire city of Miami are shut down, which is not true at all. As an example of the problem, when Andrew was still just an offcoast threat, one British newspaper reportedly ran a headline that read, "Hurricane Bearing Down on Disney Beaches."
"A lot of people don't realize that the distance between Homestead (where Andrew hit) and Orlando (home of Disney World) is 230 miles," says Gary Stogner, spokesman for Florida's Division of Tourism. "Florida is a pretty big state. It has more than 1,000 miles of beaches, and Andrew had an impact on less than 10 miles of them."
Miami is battling the same sort of misconception. Most of the news reports from the devastated area carry the Miami dateline. But Dade County, in which Miami is located, is larger than the state of Rhode Island, Stierheim points out. Andrew struck in southern Dade County in the suburban communities of Homestead and Florida City, which are south of Miami's downtown district and Miami Beach.
In the Greater Miami area, Hurricane Andrew did "minimal damage," says the convention and visitors bureau. Visitor facilities and attractions are open in Miami Beach's Art Deco District; downtown Miami; the communities of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, which are south of the city; and Bal Harbour, Sunny Isles and Surfside to the north.
At least 110 of the area's 115 major hotels are open. Erosion of the beaches, if any, also was minimal. Electric power and lights have been restored to visitor areas, except in south Dade County. Some traffic lights may still be out, but such intersections are regarded now as four-way stops.
Traffic is moving well in tourist areas, but visitors are being discouraged from going into the devastated areas of south Dade County, where local roads are congested because of clearing and reconstruction work. An 11 p.m. curfew in south Dade County does not affect tourist areas.
Key Largo and the southern keys escaped most of Andrew's wrath. "There's no damage here regardless of what you may have heard," says Ginna Thomas, executive director of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. "We are fine and open for business." Key Largo's offshore reefs apparently are unscathed, and curiously, the water seems to be clearer.
"Water visibility is at an all-time high," says Thomas, which makes marine life easier to see for snorkelers and scuba divers. For the time being, however, land-based facilities at popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo are closed while park staff assist in clean-up operations in Dade County.
However, diving and boating concessionaires outside the park are open and offering trips into the park's marine areas. Other state parks in the upper keys may also be closed for the same reason, so check ahead. The best route from Miami International Airport to Key Largo and south is the Florida Turnpike.
Fort Lauderdale was "spared the brunt" of the hurricane, says Francine Mason, spokeswoman for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We were back in business after a day. If you hadn't been here before, you wouldn't know there was a problem."
However, some trees were toppled or were stripped of branches or fronds. The streets have been cleaned, but for a few days yet visitors may spot piles of the debris still waiting to be picked up. Sand from some beach areas was blown inland, uncovering coral rocks, but otherwise the beaches are in good shape.