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Omicron could put dent in Florida's international tourism

Florida's tourism industry is grappling with how to deal with Hurricane Michael, red tide and toxic blue green algae.
The new omicron variant of the coronavirus could slow, at least temporarily, Florida’s resurging pace of tourism.

State economists anticipate the new omicron variant of the coronavirus will slow, at least temporarily, Florida’s resurging pace of tourism — particularly a return of international visitors.

Saying the world is entering a time of uncertainty, members of the state Economic Estimating Conference agreed Monday to slightly lower expectations through the middle of 2022 for Canadian and overseas travelers, as the panel looked at various aspects of the Florida economy.

“In the near term, I think, yeah, omicron and all that might have some dampening effect,” said Holger Ciupalo, policy coordinator for the governor’s Office of Policy and Budget.

Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, said she expects the highly contagious variant will 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?”

Baker said after the meeting that forecast numbers had not yet been recalculated.

The state’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% above the overall number of visitors in the third quarter of 2019 — before the pandemic began. The third-quarter totals followed 31.7 million visitors in the second quarter, which was a 16.3% improvement on the first quarter and 2.2% below the second quarter of 2019.

Almost 90% of visitors this year have come from other states. Officials at Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, have been expecting a resurgence in Canadian and overseas visitors after the White House eased travel restrictions in November.

However, just as international trips were starting to pick up, the rules of overseas travel have again changed because of the emergency of the omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa and has spread around the world, including in the United States.

Weeks after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted on more than 30 countries, the Biden administration banned visitors from South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and implemented stricter testing requirements for inbound travelers, including U.S. citizens.

The state economists expressed differences of opinion about whether the international pause will continue for another year or if the testing requirements are just another step in travel.

Still, the overall forecast for Florida’s tourism industry remains positive.

Vesselka McAlarney, an Office of Economic and Demographic Research economist who was among the more pessimistic regarding the short-term impact on international travel, pointed to Florida’s “welcoming stance in the background of increasing government-imposed rules regarding COVID and further requirements to travel internationally.”

“As we saw under the initial lockdowns, more visitors might have switched to travel to Florida to where they can drive rather than going internationally. So, we may further benefit from that,” McAlarney said.

Florida counts on international travelers, who typically spend more time and cash while in the state.

In a November news release that touted the third-quarter numbers, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young highlighted steps the travel industry is taking to “overcome anything that comes our way.”

“Looking ahead, Visit Florida will only be hitting the accelerator as we reenter the global travel arena and the lucrative winter travel season,” Young said in the release.

Canadian tourists on average spend about 16 days in the state. For overseas visitors, the average is 12 days, and domestic tourists spend an average of six days.

Economists provided some positives for domestic travelers, including that high gasoline prices should return to lower levels seen in prior forecasts. Also, they said increasing air travel prices should remain below pre-coronavirus levels through next year.