Unclear How Tourism Industry Will Weather Turbulent Summer

Aug 4, 2016

With tragedies at home and abroad, Florida has been inundated with bad news this summer, which can affect the public’s travel plans. WFSU takes the pulse of the state’s tourism industry.

Street art in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, site of a local outbreak of the Zika virus.
Credit Katie Wheeler via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/almostsummersky/

The sunshine state has welcomed record number of visitors for five years straight, according to the state’s tourism corporation Visit Florida. This year, Governor Rick Scott is aiming for 115 million tourists, which could translate to more than $5 billion in tax revenue. People from dozens of countries will visit Disney and Universal Theme Parks, perhaps drink some fresh-squeezed orange juice. And if the state’s newest tourism ambassador gets his way, they’ll check out the "sexy beaches and hotels" too.

Yes, that is the rapper Pit Bull, promoting the state in a music video for Visit Florida. But there are some things that not even Pit Bull can fix. It’s been a difficult, at times heartbreaking summer: 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, a 2 year old boy was drowned by an alligator, a foul-smelling algae bloom is choking the Treasure Coast, and now there is a local outbreak of the Zika virus in the trendy Miami neighborhood of Wynwood. Mark Bonn is a professor at Florida State University’s School of Hospitality, where he researches tourism.

“All those issues could have a punitive effect on decision making, which would ultimately have a trickle-down effect upon salaries, wages and employment for local community members,” he said.

Despite the slew of tragic events, Bonn says the industry hasn’t taken much of a hit.

“We’re not seeing too much of an effect at all from Orlando, in terms of occupancy in the overall performance in our lodging industry, and the same is true from the algae blooms,” he said.

The Wynwood district in Miami.
Credit Arctic Penguin via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/arcticpenguin/

But it’s not yet clear how Zika will affect people’s travel plans. Right now Florida’s local outbreak is centralized in a one square mile section of Wynwood. It’s a fashionable warehouse district, internationally known for elaborate murals and art galleries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued an unprecedented stateside travel ban, prohibiting pregnant women from visiting the square mile zone. Heath officials in the United Kingdom and Canada have issued travel warnings as well. But Visit Florida, and local businesses in Wynwood, say the area is safe and busy. Tom Curitore heads the Wynwood Business Improvement District.

“So we do have people on the streets. I’m out here right now and you can’t find a parking spot, on 2nd Avenue and there’s people walking around, people taking pictures,” he said.

He’s been keeping the community informed, tweeting out updates and passing around cases of bug spray. So far, only one event space has closed its doors, the Wynwood Yard. Curitore says it’s a precautionary step; the Yard only has outdoor seating. But for some, it’s business as usual. Beth Boone runs a local non-profit called the Miami Light Project and she oversees the Wynwood Arts District.

“It’s like I said before, people are just going about their everyday lives, and driving to work or going to a restaurant and I think trying to take proper precautions. I don’t see people…running in the opposite direction. Let me say that,” she said.

Beth Boone runs a local non-profit called the Miami Light Project and she oversees the Wynwood Arts District. She says the only thing that’s out of the ordinary, is all the news crews. Media coverage could distort the impact of Zika, especially for those who aren’t familiar with the virus, says tourism researcher Mark Bonn. But he thinks lawmakers should address the health of local communities first and foremost.

“And although it’s nice to think about our visitors, I think that we should address the seriousness to our local residents immediately. Those who live here. Because if we don’t have local residents, how are we going to serve the traveling public to begin with, right?” he asked.

Bonn says the latest numbers on hotel occupancy for the month of July should be out in two weeks.