Tourism is Florida’s largest industry yet the agency that markets the state could soon be going away. As lawmakers hammer out details of a roughly $90 billion spending plan, Visit Florida could find itself left out.
At its peak, the tourism marketing agency was receiving $76 million a year and had the support of former governor Rick Scott. During those peak years, the state saw its year-over-year visitation grow. Much of that growth came from visitors from other states. Now though, Scott is no longer in office, and discontent over some of Visit Florida’s past marketing and spending decisions—like a partnership with rapper Pitbull—has come to the fore. The agency has been fighting for its political life.
Visit Florida’s sent out videos like this one featuring Wylie Petty the General Manager of the El Governor Hotel in Mexico Beach and Cathy Johnson, owner of Mango Marley’s.
“We’re depending on Visit Florida to get the word out that Mexico Beach is open for business. We’ve depended on Visit Florida in the past to let people know Mango Marley’s is here and we’re depending on them again," Johnson said in the video.
The agency has spent more than a million dollars on recovery efforts from Hurricane Michael. But can Visit Florida be separated from the mission of marketing Florida? That’s something North Florida Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, says is under consideration. House Speaker Jose Oliva believes can be done.
“I would point those people to the world before visit Florida existed. I would point to the fluctuation in funding with Visit Florida and how it in no way correlates to the fluctuation in our tourism. And how a great deal of that money wasn’t even being used to promote Florida," Oliva said.
“In a trillion dollar economy, a few million dollars put toward advertising a few different places cannot possibility have a direct correlation with tourism. The economy has a direct correlation, the types of attractions, the weather…Visit Florida is probably least among them.”
“I would think Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, they’re cheering this decision," said Visit Florida CEO Dana Young following a budget hearing on the agency's future. " California—they’re cheering this decision because it’s going to increase their market share at the detriment of Florida taxpayers.”
Young says moving to end Visit Florida would hurt the state and she points to Colorado as an example. In 1993 that state cut its then $12 million marketing program and, according to one study, lost billions in revenue. The state reversed course in 2000 and began reinvesting in tourism. Still, Young, a former state lawmaker, says the fight for Visit Florida isn’t over yet.
“Members are still talking, this is very much still in play so we’re just going to continue making sure people understand the positive impact Visit Florida has on the economy.”
Under current law, Visit Florida is set to sunset or go away in October. The House provides money to keep it operating until then and in budget negotiations, the Senate, which had previously voted to give Visit Florida $50 million, has taken up the House’s position.
Senate Tourism committee Chairman Travis Hutson says the Senate still supports Visit Florida, but, "if Visit Florida is going to Sunset, there’s no reason for anything further than that. So if the House passes a bill to keep Visit Florida alive or submits an offer higher than $17 million, I will certainly consider it.”
When asked wehther the House will take up the Visit Florida extension bill, Speaker Jose Oliva said he wouldn’t completely discount the idea, but that it would be difficult given the measure was never heard in any of his chamber’s committees. Without any movement on the extension, Visit Florida is set to dissolve October 1st.