Florida Tourism Numbers Go Up Amid Tourism Agency Political Turmoil

Florida continues to see record numbers of visitors while the state's tourism-marketing agency has been forced to reinvent its approach after months of legislative turmoil.

With travelers from other U.S. states bolstering the growth, tourism-marketer Visit Florida estimated 29.9 million visitors came to the Sunshine State during the year's second quarter, pushing the projected number in the first half of 2017 to 60.7 million, according to numbers released Tuesday.

With Visit Florida and Gov. Rick Scott pushing for 120 million visitors in 2017, up from nearly 113 million in 2016, the latest figures represent a 6.8 increase for the April-to-June quarter and 4.1 percent growth for the year's first half.

Scott, who this spring had to fight some key lawmakers to keep the state's annual funding at $76 million for Visit Florida, highlighted the overall tourism numbers Tuesday.

“I know that Visit Florida and their many local partners are continuing to focus on breaking more records in order to help create even more opportunities for our families,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

The numbers released Tuesday show domestic travel has grown 4.8 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same time in 2016. Meanwhile, overseas visitors are down 0.4 percent and the number of Canadians has dropped 1 percent, according to Visit Florida records.

While in Toronto for meetings last month with travel-industry leaders, Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson acknowledged that “we took this market (Canada) for granted.”

Canadians accounted for 3.2 million of Florida's visitors in 2016, down from more than 4 million in 2011.

The second-quarter tourism numbers were released less than a week after Visit Florida introduced new joint marketing efforts that involve offering a variety of rates for businesses and regional tourism organizations. The efforts came as some regional tourism organizations have splintered from Visit Florida after the agency was placed under new rules by lawmakers.

“I am proud to say that these marketing programs are the most innovative and affordable in Visit Florida's history, and are designed to be accessible to small, medium and large businesses alike,” Lawson said Thursday on the corporate blog “Sunshine Matters.”

The marketing changes establish tiered pricing options for organizations or businesses wanting to partner with Visit Florida on such things as international marketing efforts and booths at tourism events.

Under the plan, for example, a local business or travel group can spend from $10,000 to $125,000 to join Visit Florida's $6 million marketing venture into Great Britain, the state's top overseas market.

A series of joint marketing tiers — from $900 to $50,000 — are also available as Visit Florida is directing $1 million to a marketing effort in Germany.

Visit Florida made the changes as it recovers from months of criticism from state lawmakers over the way it used money. The scrutinized spending included $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, $1 million with Miami rapper Pitbull, and recently ended deals with an auto racing team and London-based football club Fulham.

Earlier this month, Lawson — brought to Visit Florida in January after serving as secretary of the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation —  used the blog to note he was “humbly” reaching out to different groups across the state seeking to re-earn “your trust and learn from you first hand.”

Accompanying the legislative attacks, Visit Florida had to fight to keep its state funding from being cut by two-thirds.

But in approving Scott's budget request, lawmakers approved new disclosure rules, which played a role in 12 regional tourism organizations ending their partnerships with Visit Florida. Those organizations included Visit Tampa Bay, Visit Orlando and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Another 47 have remained.

The disclosure requirements include such things as making public local operating budgets; travel and entertainment expenses; and the details of salaries and benefits of staff and board members tied to public and private funds.

© 2017 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. Posting or forwarding this material without permission is prohibited.