Tourism officials say state will weather challenges

Members of Florida's tourism industry acknowledge this has been a challenging summer.

But meeting Thursday at the Hilton Orlando for the Florida Governor's Conference on Tourism, they tried to exude confidence that the state's tourism industry won't suffer mightily from a string of recent events --- including a mass shooting, toxic algae outbreaks and a mosquito-borne virus --- that continue to make national headlines.

In one room, with several hundred people representing hotels and other parts of the tourism industry from across the state, only a couple of hands went up when asked how many anticipated a decline in business in the coming months.

Visit Florida President and CEO Will Seccombe, speaking during a break in the three-day conference, said, "Florida tourism is going to be fine." But he added that work will be needed to maintain the brand's image.

"There is no question this has kind of damaged the halo of the Florida brand, but then it's our charge to build that back up," Seccombe said. "The Legislature couldn't give me enough money to counter all the negativity in the national media. Story after story after story. So we have to focus in on the experiences."

That means reinforcing that Florida, with its array of activities, amusement parks and amenities, provides "the best" tourism experience, Seccombe said.

"From theme parks, to beaches, the state parks, the rural areas, the downtowns and the small towns, I think this does focus us back on the product and the diversity of product," he said. "And people just want to have a safe, awesome, memorable experience, and Florida provides that."

Five years of tourism growth has helped win Visit Florida, the state's tourism-marketing arm, $78 million in funding from the Legislature for the current fiscal year.

With a goal of 115 million visitors this year, up from 106 in 2015, the state posted 57.3 million visitors in the first six months, up 4.3 percent from a year earlier.

But during the past three months, there has been a mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub, a 2-year-old child killed by an alligator at Walt Disney World, toxic algae blooms choking East and West Coast waterways, and the continued spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said while most of the locally transmitted cases of Zika have been tied to two parts of Miami-Dade County, he hasn't seen a drop in travel as has been reported by the news media.

"We've been looking at the hotel room nights sold and the revenue generated for the last four weeks, and the numbers are up, and last year was a record year," Aedo said. "That's a huge divergence of the reality versus perception."

The Zika virus is particularly dangerous to pregnant women because it can cause severe birth defects. That prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue travel advisories for pregnant women and women considering pregnancy.

Aedo expressed hope that federal officials on Sept. 19 will lift an advisory for Miami's Wynwood area, where locally transmitted cases of Zika were first detected. The advisory is separate from a similar one issued for a part of Miami Beach

"The coordination between our city and county and our state has been amazing in terms of the measures put in place," Aedo said. "Wynwood is the most mosquito-free zone, probably, in the continental United States with all the work we've done."

Florida also just experienced its first direct hit from a hurricane in 11 years, a Hurricane Hermine plowed ashore last Friday in Wakulla County.

Some international travel has already declined due to the strength of the U.S. dollar and an economic recession in Brazil, and there has been speculation that travel from Florida's largest source of overseas tourists --- Great Britain --- could decline in the coming months as the pound has weakened following the decision by British voters to exit the European Union.

But Naples resident Shahid "Shad" Khan, owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and the London-based Fulham Football Club, said the so-called "Brexit" could be good for Florida.

"I think Brexit frankly is going to be great. I think it's going to be good for England and Britain for that matter. And I think it's going to be good for Florida," Khan said. "We will see the pound is depreciated, so things will be a little more expensive for the English coming over here. But overall it positions Florida really as a better value (than other travel destinations)."


Information provided by The News Service of Florida.