Florida's tourism numbers are up in first half of year

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But the challenge remains to keep things growing in places like Sarasota and Manatee counties when the Florida Legislature cut Visit Florida’s budget by one third to $50 million

Bolstered by U.S. and Canadian tourists, Florida’s visitor count continued at a record pace through the second quarter of 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said this week.

But Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency, now faces a test.

The estimated 68.9 million travelers to Florida during the first six months of the year occurred before a 34 percent cut in state funding for the public-private agency took effect. The cut came after repeated debates in which state House leaders questioned the need for Visit Florida.

Florida drew a record 126.98 million visitors in 2018, including 66.28 million people during the first half of last year.

In a news release announcing the January-through-June estimates for 2019, DeSantis highlighted the impact of the tourism industry on the state’s economy.

“The revenue generated by out-of-state visitation has kept taxes low while allowing us to invest in priorities like environmental protection, transportation and education,” DeSantis said. “We will continue to work to make sure that Florida remains the world’s premier vacation destination.”

Visit Florida in recent years received $76 million from the Legislature for tourism-promotion efforts, but the budget DeSantis signed for the 2019-2020 fiscal year slashed that amount to $50 million. The fiscal year started July 1.

As a result, the Visit Florida Board of Directors in May cut payroll by $3.65 million, or 30 percent, and reduced strategic marketing by $17.8 million.

In the news release, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said the agency will “continue to develop cutting edge marketing programs.”

Visit Florida has been in the crosshairs of House members in recent years because of past spending that included a $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $2.875 million contract with an auto-racing team known as Visit Florida Racing, and a $1 million promotion contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.

The tourism numbers this year have been largely driven by visitors from other parts of the United States — 61.2 million, up from 58.58 million during the same period last year — and Canadians.

The 2.4 million Canadians in the first six months of this year were up from 2.33 million in the January-through-June period last year. That continues a trend after increased marketing and discount travel programs were directed at Canadians after the numbers dropped by 5.4 percent in 2015 and 11.9 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, Florida continues to struggle with its overseas-visitor numbers.

The estimated 5.2 million overseas travelers in the first six months of the year — with the United Kingdom, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia the primary sources — are down from 5.3 million in the first of 2018.

The state’s overseas totals dropped 0.5 percent last year, 2 percent in 2017 and 2.5 percent in 2016.

Young was in Sarasota County this week, noting that in 2018, the state tourism agency decided to market specifically to adventure-seekers for the first time. The campaign, focused on highlighting the outdoors in Florida, generated more than 200 million national impressions and grew tourism from adventure seekers by 27%.

The family tourist segment hasn’t had much year-over-year growth in recent years, so Visit Florida embarked on a family-centered campaign, which delivered more than 1.1 billion national impressions. When the data rolled in, they showed that family trips to Florida increased by 24%.

“If we aren’t targeting the segment and we aren’t targeting smartly and efficiently to the segment, we’re not going to see this level of growth. They’re going to go somewhere else,” Young said.

Young was in Sarasota on Wednesday morning to talk about the value of tourism in Florida and some of the work her organization is doing. Representatives from the Charlotte County, Manatee County and DeSoto County destination marketing organizations, as well as Visit Sarasota County, came to the Carlisle Inn in Sarasota’s Pinecraft community to hear Young speak. Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, is also currently the chair of the Visit Florida board of directors.

Staff writer Laura Finaldi contributed to this report, which contains information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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