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In the Driver's Seat

Lynda Keever

I love to travel, and a trip out West is one I'm always excited to take. The wide open spaces, rugged landscapes and breathtaking views are a striking contrast to Florida's tropical scenery, and I never pass up an opportunity to wear one of my growing collection of cowboy hats.

Recently, my husband, Bill, and I vacationed in Park City, Utah, and Basalt, Colo. Park City, once known for its silver mining, has become a skiers paradise. And even in the summer, it's a great vacation destination. We got to spend a day horseback riding in the mountains at High Aspen Ranch and took in a film series on the history of the area's cowboy culture.

With a wide assortment of fine restaurants and quaint, upscale shops, both Park City and Basalt are welcoming, visitor-friendly towns. Just about everyone we came in contact with showed us the Western version of Southern hospitality. In many ways, Bill and I felt right at home, and we're already looking forward to our next trip.

But my home state is never far from my mind, and while shopping in Park City one afternoon I thought about how Southern hospitality plays such a big role in making Florida so popular with visitors. Living here year-round, it's easy to take for granted, but we shouldn't. After all, Florida's economy is built around tourism, hospitality and retail.

For years Florida has been America's No. 1 destination for family vacations, but I wondered just how we stack up against other tourist areas. So when I got back home, I contacted Visit Florida's president and CEO, Bud Nocera, to find out just how we rate.
Visit Florida's recent visitor survey revealed the features most appealing to Florida visitors:

  1. Warm and friendly staff at hotels, restaurants and attractions (89%)
  2. Having a feeling of getting away (77%)
  3. Having a unique experience (76%)
  4. Having a wide variety of activities to choose from (74%)

Overall, 96% of visitors agree that Florida is appealing as a "sun vacation destination." So the good news is we're still the competition to beat.

"Florida enjoys a leadership position that every other state --? and most developing nations -- envy," Nocera says. The bad news: Other markets around the world are hot on our tracks. Nocera says that the quest for tourism dollars is taking a competitive turn, with states and developing nations turning to tourism to boost their economies. Florida will be getting a run for its money, "so we'll need to race harder to maintain our position," he says.

Many Florida cities still depend on hospitality and retail to generate jobs, and retailing is Florida's second-largest employment industry, providing more than $20 billion in wages yearly and one of every five jobs, according to the Florida Retail Federation.

The truth is, Florida will always need these industries to create and preserve jobs and fuel economic growth. We shouldn't be complacent in thinking tourism will always drive itself. Tourism development is a critical part of economic development, and legislative funding, public and private partnerships and support for our economic development organizations and convention and visitor bureaus statewide are crucial in maintaining our state's strong position.

We need to be doing all we can to entice visitors and to ensure that they come back often.

For now, we remain in the driver's seat, but if we're smart, we'll be doing much more than just checking our rear view mirror.