Florida Keys’ booming tourism leads to low unemployment

The print ad for the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council, with the picturesque Seven Mile Bridge leading into the blue ocean, touts the island-connecting Overseas Highway as “The Road to Recovery.”

During the past two years, the “get-away-from-it-all” vacation destination has become just what the doctor ordered for many visitors looking to relieve the stress of the recession. “Work has been such a hassle that my buddy and I decided we needed to go fishing,” said Roger Rayburn, a Chicago construction worker from Chicago who was having a beer at an Islamorada tiki bar. “So here we are.”

While the recession lingers in other parts of the country, the Keys economy is riding high, with a booming tourist industry leading the way. Occupancy rates are tops in the state at 83 percent, up from 70 percent in 2010. Average daily rates for lodging also are way up, from $179 a night two years ago to $235 now.

“In a way, we have kind of benefited from the gloom and doom situation elsewhere,” said Harold Wheeler, executive director of the Keys tourist development council.

The boom helped push Monroe County’s unemployment rate down to 4.9 percent in May, lowest in the state and lower than any county in at least 25 other states.

“It’s a big decline from the peak of 7.5 percent,” said Rebecca Rust, chief economist for the state’s Department of Economic Development.

Even 7.5 percent would sound good to most of Florida, which has an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, but it was a high number for the island chain that regularly relies on foreign workers to fill the gaps not met by a local workforce that is especially transient due to the high cost of living.

That unemployment peak occurred in September 2010, at the end of a months long scare caused by the BP disaster that spewed oil for weeks into the north part of the Gulf of Mexico. Many would-be visitors to the Keys either canceled trips or simply didn’t book them, believing the gooey stuff already had made it to the islands or imminently would reach its shorelines.

But the leak was capped, with not one drop of oil reaching the Keys’ beaches or its diving reefs, boating waters and fishing grounds. Happy times returned for the tourist industry — the economic engine that drives the economy and accounts directly for about 33 percent of the county workforce of 48,138.

“Monroe County is a rare tourist destination,” Wheeler said. “Usually one or two cities are a tourist destination. Our whole county is — from Key Largo to Key West.”

An analysis from the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity found the Keys’ low unemployment rate is attributed primarily to tourism and the military bases: the U.S. Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and the U.S. Coast Guard in Key West, with substations in Marathon and Islamorada.

The workforce of the Naval Air Station and its “tenant commands” — which include the Joint Interagency Task Force South that battles the maritime drug war from a base on Navy property in Key West — has remained steady the past few years at about 3,000 active duty, civilians and contract workers. And, there’s no plan to downsize in the future, said Trice Denny, spokeswoman for the Naval Air Station.

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