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State Economist: Predicted Drop In Florida Tourism Is 'Mind-Boggling'

Florida economic forecasters predict international travelers will be loath to visit the sunshine state until conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic improve.
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Florida economic forecasters predict international travelers will be loath to visit the sunshine state until conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic improve.

Tourism is one of Florida’s main economic drivers, and the industry’s hit from COVID-19 shutdowns will be felt for years. That gloomy outlook opened Friday’s meeting of the Florida Economic Estimating Conference at the Capitol.

Members wore masks and sat at socially distant lengths to assess predictions about Florida’s economy. Tourism was a big part of the discussion, with those numbers expected to stay lower than normal through the third quarter of 2020.

“You have to remember that embedded in the second quarter was an overall global shutdown,” says the state’s chief economist Amy Baker, who leads the Office of Economic and Demographic Research. “So that period is setting us up to be different in this quarter relative to that quarter” in the midst of reopening.

Optimistic predictions are that a tourism turnaround could begin in the last quarter of the calendar year – if there’s a COVID-19 vaccine or the spread of the coronavirus otherwise slows. But even with increased tourist numbers following the current downturn, the forecast expects overall travel to be “constrained” for possibly the next two years.

“I think it’s still going to be horrific if you lose 35 percent of the tourists you were expecting next year,” Baker said. “I mean that’s still, that’s mind-boggling in and of itself.”

The tourists that do come to Florida may find fewer options for shopping, dining, and entertainment. Baker said not all businesses can reopen at 50 percent capacity and “modify their behavior accordingly.” She said there are “go” or “no go” decision points businesses have to make based on covering their costs.

“Kool Beanz here in Tallahassee, classic example,” Baker said, referring to a popular restaurant about a mile from the Capitol. “They decided not to reopen in the short run because they can’t handle - in terms of their cost structure - a reduced level of people, and probably safety reasons and a hundred other reasons, but that’s part of it.”

For this year, the group now estimates that just 65 percent of the anticipated visitors to Florida will show up. Many of them will drive, while international travel will plummet.

“What I think about is, you know, if I’m coming from Germany and I want to take a vacation, am I going to come to Florida right now?” Baker asked when considering a traveler’s fear of getting sick and being quarantined away from home. “I don’t think I would.”

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Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. She left after a few years to spend more time with her son, working part-time as the capital reporter/producer for WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a drama teacher at Young Actors Theatre. She also blogged and reported for StateImpact Florida, an NPR education project, and produced podcasts and articles for AVISIAN Publishing. Gina has won awards for features, breaking news coverage, and newscasts from contests including the Associated Press, Green Eyeshade, and Murrow Awards. Gina is on the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors. Gina is thrilled to be back at WFSU! In her free time, she likes to read, travel, and watch her son play football. Follow Gina Jordan on Twitter: @hearyourthought