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Go Figure - Why Visitors Still Flock to Florida

Never mind high unemployment and stagnant housing markets in the U.S. Forget the European debt crisis. Visitors, both domestic and foreign, are bucking the economy and flocking to Florida.

Florida tourism has been on an upswing since 2010, when Orlando became the first city in the nation to have more than 50 million tourists in one year — a 10.5% increase from 2009, when the visitor count had fallen 4.7%. Likewise, starting in 2010, Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Naples, Panama City and St. Augustine each began experiencing an unexpected influx of visitors. In 2011, 87.3 million tourists came to Florida, an increase of 6.1% over 2010.

In the first half of this year, the number of visitors to the state jumped 1.5%, putting Florida on pace to set a tourism record.

Even for political and business leaders aggressively pushing for the state to diversify its economy, the resurgence of one of Florida’s economic pillars is welcome.

On top of providing 38,400 more jobs in 2011 than the year before, the visitor influx has boosted bed-tax revenue of local governments, which frequently use the money to pay for community projects like Orlando’s Amway Center, built using $270 million in bed-tax collections. Pinellas County has collected $22 million in bed taxes so far this year — a nearly 12% increase — in what D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater, describes as “a record-breaking year.”

Tourists also prop up sales tax collections for the state. As a result, sales tax revenue last fiscal year was $152 million more than expected.

Behind the record-setting numbers are lots of international travelers. Over 40% of Florida’s increase in tourism in the last three years has come courtesy of overseas travelers, particularly South Americans, who now travel beyond their traditional central and south Florida destinations and move throughout the state. In the past four years, for example, the number of Brazilian tourists has nearly tripled, to nearly 1.5 million. Meanwhile, the number of visitors from Argentina, Chile and Colombia each increased by more than 20%. All those countries have seen above-average economic growth, favorable exchange rates and a fast-growing middle class. They were also helped by shortened travel visa wait times.

Europeans are coming, too, despite the much-publicized debt crisis. The number of visitors from the United Kingdom, a traditional source of tourists for the state, has fallen, but travel from the rest of Europe is actually up 20% from 2008. This surprised even Tracy Vaughan, Visit Florida’s director of international sales and marketing, who says the increase “boggles my mind.” Even lower-profile locales such as Naples report double-digit increases in European visitors.

In addition to a better-funded sales effort by Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketing arm [“Reinvented”], one factor playing a big role in the surge has been better air service, Vaughan says. The Orlando and Miami airports together added 41 non-stop flights to South American countries in the last four years, with the bulk of the new flights coming into Orlando [“Olá, Brazil”]. There have been new connections to Europe as well, including non-stops from Switzerland to Tampa and new non-stops between Miami and several European cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon.

Top Origin States to Florida (2010)
State Percent
Georgia 11.3%
New York 7.7
Illinois 6.4
North Carolina 5.5
New Jersey 5.5
Texas 4.8
Michigan 4.6
Pennsylvania 4.2
Ohio 4.2
Alabama 4.2
Source: Visit Florida

New attractions, such as Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in June 2010 to seven-hour waits, also helped lure visitors. “That was a huge global phenomenon,” says Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando. “It was something that wasn’t available anywhere else in the world.”

The breadth of the state’s tourism boom is reflected in the fact that, for all the lingering economic uncertainty, the number of visitors to Florida from elsewhere in the U.S. has risen as well, by 4.9% last year. Some states, including Texas, are sending more tourists to Florida than ever before.

Chris Thompson, CEO of Visit Florida, credits pent-up demand. “The economic crisis has been so tough on folks over the last three years,” he says, “that people are just ready to travel, to get back some of the things they were doing before everything hit rock bottom.”

Olá, Brazil

Facing a drop in domestic travel of 2 million visitors (5%) in 2009, officials in Orlando needed a way to draw more tourists without relying on recession-weakened America. So Visit Orlando began a new effort to reach out to Brazilians, a logical focus because of a new non-stop service to São Paulo and the country’s fast-growing middle class, flourishing economy and shortened visa wait times.

Beginning in 2009, and in conjunction with some of the city’s largest theme parks, Visit Orlando spent $1 million annually on a major marketing campaign in Brazil. The agency launched a special website in Portuguese, gave away free trips during morning talk shows and ran advertisements on television, in print and online.

The investment paid off. By 2011, tour operators reported booking 115,000 Brazilians thanks to this campaign, generating $166 million in tourism spending.

South American Visitors to Florida

Country 2008 2011
Brazil 550,000 1,470,000
Argentina 150,000 380,000
Colombia 200,000 310,000
Chile 70,000 100,000
Source: Visit Florida