Florida Keys welcome visitors back for first time after Irma

Tourism major driver of area's economy

By Liane Morejon - Reporter, Madeleine Wright - Reporter

KEY LARGO, Fla. - For the first time since Hurricane Irma, tourists worked their way down to the Florida Keys on Sunday.

Tourism is a major driver of the Keys' economy, so while life isn't totally back to normal for residents, opening to tourists could help people get back on their feet.

"Well, yes, for the economy and everything, to keep the restaurants going and stuff like that, and these resorts that haven't made money in the last couple of weeks," Nick Stevens, who has been hired to clean up debris for the Boy Scouts, said.

Stacey Mitchell, director of marketing for the Florida Keys and Key West, agrees. 

"We've made enough progress where the infrastructure is ready to accept visitors," she said. "By welcoming visitors to the destination it'll provide the jobs and hope our residents are looking for so they can rebuild their lives." 

But tourists be aware -- this may not be the Keys you have in mind. 

"I think they're not going to know what to expect because they're all, there's still a lot of debris on the side of the road," Stevens said. 

The signs of Irma’s damage are hard to ignore.

About 20 percent of the homes in Monroe County were deemed to be unlivable after the storm leaving residents living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers for the time being. Mike Zero believes curiosity may lure some people down to the island chain.

"Obviously there's not very much tourism down here because of that. I think the tourism now is going to be, 'Let's go see how bad the Keys are,'" he said. 

Zero believes it may be too soon to allow tourists to come back -- and residents don't appreciate photos of their losses.

"Drive down people's neighborhoods, the people around here get upset when you're taking pictures and cameras and videos because you're looking right into their heart, into their homes," he said.

With so much damage needing repair, Zero and Stevens hope visitors can give workers the space they need.

The curfew set in place for all of the Florida Keys was lifted Monday morning. 

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