With the price of fuel still on the rise, Florida Keys charter captains and watersports companies are making adjustments. CONTRIBUTED

Remember when 20 bucks could fill your little car’s tank more than halfway? Remember when 10 bucks could get you from Key West to Marathon, at least?

Those days are long gone and economic experts don’t know when the pain at the pump will subside. 

In the Florida Keys island chain, summer tourism depends on the drive-down market of people vacationing from elsewhere in Florida, as well as Georgia and the Carolinas. But their travel costs have skyrocketed with Florida’s average gas prices hovering around $5 a gallon.

The spikes are also a huge concern for local boaters, charter captains, dive boats and watersports companies.

“As the pain threshold of $5/gallon as the national average for gas has just been reached, there is likely to be some impact; we are just not sure where it will be felt or how deep,” Stacey Mitchell, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, told the Keys Weekly. “I’m confident the summer tourism season will remain steady, but I believe consumer price point behaviors have already begun to change. They still want to travel and are still planning summer vacations, but they’re having to make adjustments to spending habits.”

Mitchell pointed out that in prior economic “headwinds,” vacation rentals and other properties with cooking capabilities “provided intrinsic value, as meals could be prepared; the guest could stock their own bar, and folks bringing down their own boats could go snorkeling or fishing without hiring a private captain. 

“While still popular for the summer visitor, this year those gas and marine fuel costs as well as grocery bills have leveled the savings playing field,” Mitchell said. “In addition, if you’re a mom on vacation, going to Publix to buy groceries, unloading them and then preparing meals in a rental unit doesn’t quite feel like a real vacation — at least it wouldn’t for me.”

She said fuel costs and lodging rates could prompt some visitors to shorten their stays, curtail some attractions and watersport activities and eat at less expensive restaurants. 

“As we look forward toward the Independence Day holiday and the busiest month for summer vacations (July), the TDC office will be closely monitoring consumer behaviors to determine what impact the current economic situation is having on our local economy,” Mitchell said.  

Meanwhile, at the dock

Captain Bill Giliberti is the owner of Marathon-based Top Notch Sportfishing. Though he says he increased the price of his charters in early 2022 to cover rising costs of fuel, bait and tackle, among other expenses, and says that most of his clients have understood, he wonders how far the increases can go before his clientele dries out.

“I increased my price, and my profit margins didn’t go up,” he said. “The thing is, where is the realistic breaking point where someone’s going to say ‘No, I’m not going to go charter fishing out of principle because I’m not going to pay that much money’?”

Though he’s in business to make a living for himself, Giliberti is conscious of the fact that most of his clients don’t understand his industry and may be visiting the Keys for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation – something he doesn’t want to derail with fuel bills for a boat trip. 

In his mind, charters have a responsibility to inform their clients as soon as they decide to raise prices to allow for potential changes in vacation plans. And on his boat, if a client books a charter and he raises his prices between the booking and the scheduled trip, he only has one option: “I eat it.”

“If I give someone a price for something, that’s what it is,” he said. “I come from a middle-class family. We save up all year to go on a one-week vacation. If a family budgets their vacation to come down here, that extra $200 could be the breaking point to where they’re like, ‘No, we can’t afford to go.’”

With multiple boats in his High Caliber Sportfishing armada, Marathon Capt. Jimmy Gagliardini said each boat feels the pinch of the fuel hikes differently based on its engine configuration. He, like others, has recently raised his charter prices across the board to cover a portion of his rising expenses, but he’s also wary of a tolerance threshold for his potential customers. 

“I’m fishing a half-day right now for $900,” he said. “Am I supposed to raise that price? At what point will people say no? I feel like I’m at that point now where it’s sticker shock.”

When it comes to fuel surcharges, Gagliardini said his increases don’t pass all of the extra expenses on to the customer.

“Going up $100 to go offshore dolphin fishing on a 31-foot Contender really doesn’t cover all the fuel,” he said. “Basically, I’m almost splitting it with them. So far, 100% have understood. I’m just trying to keep it somewhat reasonable to where I’m not overwhelming the customer with the cost and I can still make money.

“We’re doing the best we can just to weather it out. It’ll eventually go back down, but I don’t know when that will be.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.