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Keys Winter Tourism Taking Hits From Irma

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) - The start of winter is the kickoff of the busy tourist season in the Keys.

This year, however, some Keys businesses are struggling to reel in visitors after Hurricane Irma hammered the island chain in September.

More the three million people stay in they Keys annually. More than half of their economy is from tourism which brings in an estimated $2.7 billion dollars a year. This year it's estimated that Irma has jeopardized $300 million in sales.

One of the biggest challenges in Islamorada, and many of the other Keys, is finding a place to stay. Many of the big resorts remain closed after being battered by Irma.

"We're down about 28 percent in available hotel rooms. Well you know, if we don't have hotel rooms, then how can you possibly be up or as busy," said Andy Newman, communications director of the Florida Keys and Key West Tourism Council.

The lack of hotel rooms trickles down to other businesses, like bars and restaurants.

"Obviously it impacts everybody in the tourism business," said Newman.

The problem is most severe in Islamorada where nearly 70 percent of the hotel rooms are out of order.

Councilman and restaurant owner Mike Forster is feeling that impact.

"You can't stay here but you can play here," he said.

Fewer heads in beds translates to fewer hungry mouths to feed at his restaurant. He said his business is down 50 percent.

"Everything we have here is available, its ready to go. All the merchants are ready, the businesses are open, but we're just missing bedrooms," he said.

Off Islamorada, the self-proclaimed Sportfishing Capital of the World, the fish are still biting but Steve Leopold can't hook any customers for his charter boat. He said they are normally busy between the holidays.

"We're booked every day. We fish every day. Sometimes multiple trips per day," he said.

But this year?

"We have zero," he said.

Last September, the category four hurricane slammed into the Keys with 130 mph winds, destroying more than 1,100 homes and leaving behind more than have a billion dollars in damages. Resorts have been racing to finish repairs in time for the winter season. Some properties, however, will be closed until next fall.

Don Zinner owns The Lookout Lodge, a 10 bedroom boutique hotel that reopened quickly after suffering minimal damage from Irma. Zinner said while there may not be a lot of competion now for rooms, he would certainly welcome it.

Mort and Harriet Cohen, from California, have been visiting the Keys for 15 years. After securing a room, they were able to relax.

"Once you get a place to stay the restaurants are open, the weather is beautiful. It is the Florida Keys," said Mort Cohen.

Some resorts are using this time to remodel properties. Some of the small business owners say it may take a full year to recover from their losses.

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