“We’re open for business”: The Florida Keys ready to welcome back Canadians
Ashley Serrate

“We’re open for business”: The Florida Keys ready to welcome back Canadians

TORONTO ­— There are few places as laidback as the Florida Keys, a vital attribute that will serve the destination well this winter season.

With the U.S. border now open to fully vaccinated travellers, the Keys, a 2,900-square-nautical-mile stretch of coral reefs and seagrass beds that begins just south of Miami, is expecting to see some healthy visitor numbers this year. And even though the United States has tightened up border measures in response to the omicron variant, requiring all travellers to test negative for COVID-19 one day before boarding their flight (down from three), Ashley Serrate, representative for the Florida Keys and Key West, tells Travelweek that she’s seen a definite uptick in calls, inquiries and arrivals in recent weeks.

“I think people are starting to do longer lead reservations as opposed to travelling immediately, but yes, we have seen an increase in visitors,” says Serrate. “Canada is our number one feeder market. From the perspective of our hotel partners, there’s been an increase in web traffic as well as phone calls and interest in hotel rates.”

In 2019, the destination welcomed a total of 2.51 million visitors, including 359,000 from Canada. In 2020, despite the global pandemic, it reported a respectable 1.59 million visitors. Serrate attributes this to the Keys being a well-known outdoor destination.

“The good thing about the Florida Keys is that there’s so much room to spread out and so many ways to get out on the water. We have 10 state parks and a lot of hotel properties that have vacation rental-style villas. And the majority of restaurants offer outdoor dining so if you’re not comfortable dining indoors, you can easily sit outside and enjoy the view,” says Serrate.

“We’re open for business”: The Florida Keys ready to welcome back Canadians

Seven Mile Bridge

We asked Serrate how the destination is preparing for the winter season, and what new offerings Canadians can look forward to in 2022 in this exclusive interview:

How can Canadians get to the Florida Keys this winter?

Prior to COVID-19, there was a Key West-Toronto direct flight but unfortunately that is no longer in service. However, Canadians can easily connect via Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Atlanta, Miami being the closest airport. From there, they can rent a car and make the 45-minute drive to Key Largo, which is the northernmost point of the Keys. If they want to go from Miami all the way to Key West, it would take about four and a half hours. It’s a relatively short drive, but it’ll take longer if you make stops along the way to shop, have lunch and see the sights around the Upper Keys, which is what I would recommend.”

Throughout the pandemic, there have been reports of limited car rental availability and inflated car rental fees. Can you tell us what the car rental situation is currently like in the Keys?

“Most folks heading to the Keys would rent a car in Miami or Fort Lauderdale. There are cars available, however, prices are pretty high, particularly for one-way rentals, for example, if you pick it up in Miami and drop it off in Key West. But if you looked at doing a roundtrip rental, prices are high but they’re going to start going down this winter as inventory becomes more available. I know that rental companies are starting to build back their inventory. They sold off a lot of their cars during the pandemic but now they’re trying to buy back inventory.”

Can you provide an overview of what Canadians can expect in terms of safety protocols while in destination?

“We have all our COVID-19 safety protocols listed on our website so that’s a great place to direct people to if they have any questions. There’s no formal mask mandate in place in the Florida Keys, however, most indoor museums and activities and restaurants still encourage visitors to wear masks if they’re not vaccinated. If they are vaccinated, they have the option to wear a mask or not. But from my personal experience, a lot of folks are still wearing masks, at least indoors.”

How are health and safety protocols being monitored and regulated at hotels?

“The majority of our hotels are open for the winter. At the moment, health and safety regulation is left to each individual hotel. Most hotels are following all of the major safety protocols, encouraging mask wearing and daily sanitizing, and have ramped up housekeeping services. A majority of hotels are also following the same rules based on the Keys Lodging Association, but the main governing body would be Monroe County and at the moment they’re following state guidelines.”

Are in-person festivals and events coming back online in the Keys?

“There are some holiday events that are on the calendar as well as New Year’s celebrations. The folks who do the annual Red Shoe Drop (also known as the Drag Queen Drop) in Key West are just now starting plan, but it looks like it will move forward in some capacity. And in January, the Key West Wine and Food Festival will be coming back, which is very exciting.”

What’s new in the Florida Keys that Canadians should keep top of mind?

“The new 25-acre Valhalla Island Resort in the Middle Keys, develop by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and his Floridian Holdings LLC, will have its groundbreaking in early 2022. The 110-unit development, when complete, will be among the largest resorts in the Florida Keys. Plans call for 28 standard hotel rooms in the lodge, with the rest being split among 50 villas, cottages and homes. There’ll also be a 12,000 square-foot spa, hair salon, steam rooms, saunas and ‘cold pools.’

“Also, Barbary Beach House Key West opened on Nov. 15 as the three-storey, 186-suite Margaritaville Beach House Key West, the only Margaritaville resort in Key West. It offers a lagoon-style pool, 24-hour fitness centre, daily poolside refreshments, complimentary airport pickup and drop off, plus dogs under 30 pounds are welcome for a fee.

“We’re open for business”: The Florida Keys ready to welcome back Canadians

Kayaking in Islamorada

“In Islamorada, the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center is showcasing a new exhibit through Jan. 16, with original artworks by members of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. The exhibit features works illustrating birds, butterflies, moths, bees, even aquatic zooplankton.

“And Everglades National Park will kick off its 75th anniversary celebrations in January with a monthly seminar series and other events throughout the year, leading up to its anniversary on Dec. 6, 2022. In addition to a new 24-unit Flamingo Lodge & Restaurant located in the park’s Flamingo area, there’ll also be a new Flamingo Visitor Center scheduled to open in 2022.

For a full list of attractions, you can visit www.fla-keys.com.”

What would you say the current vibe is like in the Florida Keys?

“I like to call it the new normal. People are out and about, especially in the Keys where more than 50% of the workforce is employed by the tourism industry. So people are back to work and you still get that sense of Keys hospitality when you visit the destination. People are ready to welcome back visitors and are excited to tell them about all the great things you can see and do in the Florida Keys. I don’t want to say we’re 100% back to where we were. But I think things are getting better, and we’re open for business, and people are ready to welcome visitors back.

How are you working with travel agents?

“Travel agents are super important to us. On our website, we have what’s called the Key Lime Academy where agents can take online seminars, learn more about the destination, and help them better sell the destination. Travel agents are, have always been and will continue to be a key priority for the destination because I think now more than ever, we’re seeing more people turn to travel agents for advice. They want a trusted resource, someone who can help them troubleshoot travel issue. So tapping into those folks who know the destination is a top priority.”

Final question: What do you think are the top 3 things to do in the Florida Keys?

“In no particular order, I would say try key lime pie at as many restaurants and establishments as you possibly can. Get out on the water at some point, whether it’s fishing, snorkelling or going on a sunset sail. And finally, get immersed in the history. There’s so much history to be had throughout the Keys that I don’t think a lot of people know about.”

 


For more information about travel to the Florida Keys, go to www.fla-keys.com.