MARTIN COUNTY, Fla.
After a year of working to draw more people to one Treasure Coast county, tourism leaders are celebrating their success.
Martin County has seen a big boost in tourism over the last year, after making changes to attract travelers following the toxic water crisis in 2013.
Water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary contributed to toxic conditions in the waterways that crushed local tourism.
In 2014, Martin County made changes to how they handled their marketing and tourism efforts.
The Convention and Visitor's Bureau shut down, and the county ultimately took control of tourism.
The county's new tourism and marketing manager, Nerissa Okiye, was hired at the end of 2014 with the task of rebranding the county and finding ways to attract more people to the area.
"When we do have the detrimental natural occurrences, how are we still staying on the positive side of things? How are we letting people know that we're still open?" Okiye said.
The new marketing strategy led tourism leaders to focus on highlighting aspects of the county that make it special aside from the St. Lucie Estuary. That also came with brand new ads. "For the beaches it says 'Because a raked beach just isn't natural.' We have an ad that says 'Come hang with the locals' and it has the sea turtles."
With many other careful changes to branding, Okiye says tourism overall increased by 15% in 2015, and hotel occupancy was up 8%, a big indicator of the health of the industry, according to Okiye.
Pirate's Cover Resort and Marina employees can tell tourism is bouncing back. "We have a two-page waiting list for people to get into our marina," said Hotel Manager, Susan Miller.
Even on Monday night, the restaurant was busy and hotel rooms were booked.
It was a big change, Miller says, from just two years ago. "During the week, you could drop a pin. It was just so quiet."
With Lake Okeechobee releases resuming early this year, Okiye says her team is closely watching the impact to Martin County's waterways. But, she says they already have a marketing plan in the works to make sure tourism won't be threatened should another summer bring toxic water.
"With the waters being released a little earlier, it's cooler. So, hopefully there wont be that algae bloom that caused a lot of the issues," Okiye said.