Florida tourism continues to bounce back

A mountain biker catches some air at the Santos Fat Tire Festival in 2019. [Dave Miller/Ocala Gazette]

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Posted August 17, 2021 | Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

A glass-bottom boat gives visitors a ride at Silver Springs State Park in July 27. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

TALLAHASSEE – Florida attracted 31.7 million visitors in the second quarter of this year, as the state continued to expand tourism-marketing efforts and COVID-19 vaccinations became readily available.

The total was a 16.3% improvement from the first three months of the year and was 223.4% above the second quarter of 2020 when the global pandemic devastated the state’s vital tourism industry.

The 2021 visitor numbers from April 1 through June 30 were also just 2.2% below where the state was in 2019, a year when the state was unknowingly at the end of a decade-long run of annual record-setting tourism numbers.

Dana Young, president and CEO of the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida, said in a statement Sunday the growth this year represents an “incredible achievement for our state’s economic recovery and underscores the effectiveness of Visit Florida’s marketing.”

Florida’s second-quarter numbers were driven by travelers from other parts of the United States. During the three-month period, Florida drew 30.563 million domestic visitors, representing a 215.9% increase from the same period in 2020 – and an increase from the same period in 2019.

“Our rebound campaigns have not only helped propel travel well past 2020 levels, but a 6% increase from 2019 domestic visitation as well,” Young said. “These efforts have also been crucial for conveying the safety and diversity of our state, which is home to infinite vacation options from coast to coast.”

Young has made a goal of topping a state economist’s projection in January that the tourism sector will not make a full recovery until 2024. Economists later revised the projection for a return to “normal” for overseas travelers to the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

Florida’s recovery has benefited from other states shutting down marketing efforts for most of 2020 after the pandemic closed hotels, theme parks and tourist attractions.

A marketing rebuild began last summer and has continued this year – from first pitching Floridians on exploring the state, to trying to attract travelers from other parts of the U.S., to expanding attention in May to Mexico and England.

Still, the road remains bumpy for tourism officials.

A mountain biker catches air at the Santos Fat Tire Festival in 2019. [Dave Miller/Ocala Gazette]

Florida in recent weeks has been one of the hottest spots for coronavirus cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant. That resulted in Walt Disney theme parks again requiring guests to wear face masks while indoors, on attractions and in enclosed transportation.

Masks remain optional indoors, regardless of vaccination status, for guests at other major theme parks, including Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

Florida also is getting hit with negative media attention for water quality issues such as a red tide outbreak that led this summer to massive fish kills in the Tampa Bay area.

“Moving forward, Visit Florida remains wholly focused on driving even more success for Florida’s tourism economy and showcasing everything our great state has to offer to travelers,” Young said in the statement Sunday.

Florida could be bolstered in the coming months and into the winter season as cruise ships have started returning to sea and by a partial return of travelers from Canada, which this month opened its border to vaccinated Americans.

The Biden administration has not made a similar border decision, but pressure has been mounting from the tourism industry.

“Reopening the U.S. land border to fully vaccinated Canadians would mark a good starting point towards rebuilding our own travel economy, and the Biden administration should reciprocate this policy decision – given the high rate of vaccination across Canada – without further delay,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement last week.

Florida’s second-quarter numbers showed 1.115 million overseas travelers, a nearly 95% jump from the first quarter.

The estimated 15,000 Canadian visitors in the second quarter was a 74.1% improvement from the same period in 2020, but down 56% from the first quarter of this year.

Two years ago, Florida drew 930,000 Canadians, 2.646 million overseas travelers and 28.83 million domestic visitors in the second quarter.

Visit Florida received $50 million in the state budget that started July 1 for marketing efforts. Another $5 million is calculated into the agency’s $121.2 million budget from the U.S. Commerce Department Economic Development Administration through a federal stimulus law known as the CARES Act.

An additional $25 million in federal pandemic stimulus money is coming through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Private tourism groups and businesses are expected to provide $9.1 million in cash and $54.1 through “cooperative advertising” and other offsetting expenses.

For the first half of this year, Florida totaled 58.943 million visitors – up 47.6% from the first half of 2020, but down 13.6% from 2019, when the state was on pace for a record 131.422 million visitors. Last year, Florida ended with 79.338 million visitors.

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