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Hurricane Irma Threatens Florida's Bustling Tourism Industry


FILE - Visitors gather in front of Cinderella's castle to watch Mickey and Minnie Mouse during the Christmas parade at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Dec. 22, 2004.

Hurricane Irma's path of destruction up Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday threatens to disrupt a thriving state tourism industry worth more than $100 billion annually just months ahead of the busy winter travel season.

Some of the state's biggest attractions have announced temporary closures, including amusement park giants Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Legoland and Sea World, which all planned to close through Monday.

About 20 cruise lines have Miami as a home port or a port of call, according to the PortMiami website, and many have had to move ships out of the area and revise schedules.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have canceled and revised several sailings as a result of the storm and have offered credits and waivers on trips where passengers are unable to travel.

FILE - Royal Caribbean International's cruise ship 'Allure of the Seas' enters its new home port in Fort Lauderdale as seen from nearby Hollywood, Florida, Nov. 11, 2010.
FILE - Royal Caribbean International's cruise ship 'Allure of the Seas' enters its new home port in Fort Lauderdale as seen from nearby Hollywood, Florida, Nov. 11, 2010.

A Carnival spokesman said the situation in Florida on Sunday was still not clear enough to fully assess how widespread the effects will be.

"We will know more in the hours ahead since the hurricane is active in Florida right now," spokesman Roger Frizzell said.

Irma made a second Florida landfall on Sunday on southwestern Marco Island as a Category 3 storm bringing winds of 115 miles per hour (185 kph) and life-threatening sea surge.

Disney canceled the Monday sailing of one of its cruise ships and said it is assessing future sailings, which stop throughout the Caribbean and in the Bahamas.

Florida is one of the world's top tourism destinations. Last year nearly 113 million people visited the state, a new record, and spent $109 billion, state officials said earlier this year.

The first half of 2017 was on track to beat that record pace, officials said.

FILE - Preslee Rakes, left, her mother Tina Rakes, center, and Brad Cunningham, right, all from Kansas, feed seagulls during a visit to the South Beach area of Miami Beach, Florida, Dec. 11, 2011.
FILE - Preslee Rakes, left, her mother Tina Rakes, center, and Brad Cunningham, right, all from Kansas, feed seagulls during a visit to the South Beach area of Miami Beach, Florida, Dec. 11, 2011.

The damage Irma's winds and storm surge do to Florida's 660 miles (1,060 km) of beaches and the structures built along them during more than 30 years of explosive population growth will be critical to how quickly the state's 's No. 1 industry recovers.

The Gulf beaches west of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, are squarely in the storm's path.

In 2016, more than 6.3 million people visited Pinellas County, which encompasses those cities, and generated more $9.7 billion in economic activity.

Up and down the wide, sandy beaches of Pinellas County are traditional "old Florida" waterfront hotels such as the Don Cesar, a coral pink 1920s hotel on St. Pete Beach, which was closed by the storm. There are also modern high-rises and resorts that are part of the nation's biggest chains and brands including Hyatt Hotels, Marriott International, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

The low-lying barrier islands would be inundated if Irma's storm surge reaches forecast heights of as high as 15 feet (4.6 meters).

While some newer structures in the area are built on elevated pilings, many older homes and businesses are not.

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