New report shows significant impact of red tide on Florida tourism

It was three years since the Gulf Coast of Florida last faced a serious red tide epidemic.

Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are trying to measure how toxic algae in 2017 and 2018 affected local tourism.

Bradley George of WUSF discussed the long-term economic effects of the outbreak with UF Assistant Professor Christa Court. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

What are the main lessons of your research?

I think the bottom line is that we have finally been able to provide estimates on how local businesses are affected. Even though these harmful algal blooms are dynamic, they change, they get stronger and weaker, and they affect part of the county but not the whole county. Very often the data sources do not allow us to disentangle them. But through a survey, we were able to show that there are significant impacts on charter, fishing and diving services as well as on marine recreation. And then we were able to use other data sources to show that there is a significant impact, at least in the short term, on tourism. And we looked at this via Airbnb data.

What did you find in this Airbnb data?

We have noticed changes in prices and booking days. When there is a locally present red tide bloom, there is a price drop. And there is also a decrease in booking days. Either people cancel trips or they shorten their trip, they are not willing to pay so much to come on vacation which they may not be able to enjoy as much as they want.

Were you able to obtain data on hotels, restaurants?

No, we don’t have it yet. The reason we use Airbnb data is that we were able to get daily information. The information we have on things like hotels or restaurants, at least what is publicly available, is often only released quarterly or annually. And again, given that these events come and go, at least in one particular area, it is difficult to find an effect that is not masked by other activities. If you think of a particular county whose coast could be hit by a red tide, then if a visitor still comes, they could still spend money in that county, but not along the coast. So if we don’t have data at a sufficiently precise scale in terms of location and time, then it is much more difficult to analyze these impacts and attribute them to harmful algal blooms.

Did something in the data surprise you?

I do not think so. As part of this project, we went to talk to members of the local community before we embarked on the project to see what they experienced, as a local, at this particular event. What we ended up finding in the data largely matched what we heard in those conversations.

How do you think this research will help communities cope with the economic effects of future outbreaks of algae blooms?

I think a lot of communities are thinking about decisions about whether or not they should spend money to prevent these events or mitigate the impacts of these events. And it’s hard to do a full cost-benefit analysis if you don’t know the impacts of the event itself. I hope these numbers will contribute to these overall cost-benefit analyzes, or at least the discussions that communities are having.

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