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Florida Tourism Is Lagging Compared To Record-Breaking 2018

 Siesta Key Beach in October of 2019. Jessica Meszaros/WUSF
Florida tourism growth continues to slow as the budget for Visit Florida is decreased. JESSICA MESZAROS/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

While the number of U.S. and Canadian tourists is growing, industry leaders say the slowing pace of Florida tourism is a major concern.

The most recent quarter, July through September, saw the lowest rise in visitors to Florida since 2010, with an increase of only 1.1 percent over the same period a year earlier. That's compared to the average quarterly gain of 6.2 percent for the last nine years.

“That five percent drop that we're seeing...is 1.6 million visitors in the third quarter,” said Carol Dover, President and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. “1.6 million visitors that didn't come into our state dropped our sales tax down $41.7 million.”

With overseas tourist numbers continuing to lag, Santiago Corrado, President and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said marketing to national and international visitors is more important than ever for both the state and local destinations.

“We are a living testament that when we got serious about marketing Tampa, Hillsborough County, and partnering with Visit Florida, visitors started to come into the destination, new restaurants, new hotel properties, and that means quality of life,” Corrado said.

He said the slash in Visit Florida’s budget is to blame. The state reduced funding from $76 million in fiscal 2018-2019 to $50 million for 2019-2020.

“It's so counterintuitive that an industry that more than pays for itself, I mean, the return on investment that happens in communities because of visitation and marketing that's done through Visit Florida,” Corrado said. “It's counterintuitive that we're always having to beg for the scraps on the table when we're bringing the food to the table.”

Robert Skrob, Executive Director of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, said the “big names” in tourism like Disney and beach communities will be fine, but smaller communities will see the most impact.

“The brand of Florida will carry the big destination,” Skrob said. “But it's not going to get visitors to all the other parts of the state that still rely on visitors to pay for taxes to support the businesses that are in the industry.”

Last year saw a record-breaking 126.98 million visitors to Florida, a number experts say they are unlikely to repeat again.

“This is a state that prides itself, rightfully so, on lowering taxes for its citizens,” Corrado said. “And if tourism doesn't fill that gap, then how does that happen? How does this state continuously reduce taxes for the people that live in it when there are no visitors that are contributing to that tax?”

Despite the decline in growth, the first nine months of 2019 saw an estimated increase to 101.09 million visitors, up 3.55 million from the 97.4 million in January through September of 2018.

Alysia Cruz is the WUSF Stephen Noble news intern for the fall 2019 semester. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida in Communication and is now enrolled at USF St. Petersburg, pursuing her Master’s in Digital Journalism & Design concentrating on food writing.
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