TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A top Florida tourism official called the future of travel to the state "bright" and said there are no plans to slow marketing efforts, even with the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said Wednesday the agency continues to expand its winter marketing campaign in the United States and isn’t slowing international efforts.
"This has been a tough road for our international folks, but we have not stopped for one second working in those markets to make sure that Florida stays top of mind.," Young said during a conference call with members of the Visit Florida Executive Committee.
Last month, a panel of state economists slightly lowered expectations through the middle of 2022 for Canadian and overseas travelers, anticipating the omicron variant would slow, at least temporarily, Florida’s resurging tourism.
Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, said during a Dec. 20 meeting the highly contagious variant likely would affect people’s decisions to travel to and from Florida.
"I think omicron kind of changed the environment," Baker said. "I know of two people who were planning to travel internationally. They canceled their trips because of omicron, not knowing what additional lockdown restrictions (would be) if they got some place. Would their country be open? What's happening in the United States? What would be their requirements on them going?"
Florida’s tourism industry exceeded expectations in the third quarter of 2021, drawing 32.6 million visitors, which was 2 million more than forecast earlier this year and 0.3 percent above the overall number of visitors in the third quarter of 2019 --- before the pandemic began. The 2021 third-quarter totals followed 31.7 million visitors in the second quarter, which was 2.2 percent below the second quarter of 2019.
Almost 90 percent of visitors in 2021 had come from other states, though Visit Florida officials expected a resurgence in Canadian and overseas visitors after the White House eased travel restrictions in November.
Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman on Wednesday said it’s too early to make projections on fourth-quarter numbers.
"Most recently, I think we saw some rise in travel, especially from Latin America, but that's always been pretty consistent over the last year and a half during the pandemic," Mellman said. "I think the numbers were less than what we anticipated from Europe."
Members of the committee said they’ve seen many license plates from New York, New Jersey and the Carolinas on Interstate 95, but there hasn’t been the normal crop from Quebec and other parts of Canada.
With the start of 2022, Visit Florida launched a new winter marketing campaign aimed at the West Coast and is pinpointing tourists from numerous cities, including New York; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City; Chicago; Detroit; Philadelphia; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Cleveland; Boston; St. Louis; Nashville, Tenn.; Macon, Ga.; Louisville, Ky.: Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
Executive Committee member Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the local organization has seen winter tourism numbers already 25 percent to 40 percent higher than a year ago.
"I think you will see across the state that there will be an uptick in business from our friends from Canada, and also the Northeast and upper Midwest," Rowe said.
Young also expressed optimism.
"My common sense tells me that if the border was open, which it was or is, they are in their Suburbans and RVs, and if they aren't already here, they're on their way," Young said. "And we should be getting those numbers … but common sense just tells me that they're not hanging out in Canada."
Young’s update came as Visit Florida hopes to draw support from lawmakers for extending the agency’s scheduled expiration date beyond Oct. 1, 2023.
A proposal in the Senate (SB 434) would keep the agency operating until Oct. 1, 2031. A similar House measure (HB 489) offers an extension to Oct. 1, 2028.
The agency also hopes to maintain $50 million in state funding next fiscal year, an amount requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Visit Florida received $80 million from the Legislature for the current fiscal year, including $30 million from federal stimulus programs.
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