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Florida’s Tourism Industry Missing Key Pieces To Fully Heal From Pandemic

Its twilight, the sky turns orange, and the sun is a flaming ball as it heads down toward the horizon. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge can be seen, along with the ocean and dark clouds.
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Visit Florida forecasts big trouble for the global tourism industry. The group wants the sunshine state to get ahead of that, and local tourism agencies are catering to those itching to travel.

Visit Florida forecasts big trouble for the global tourism industry. The group wants the sunshine state to get ahead of that, and local tourism agencies are catering to those itching to travel.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the market share of overseas travelers was decreasing. Visit Florida's Staci Mellman says the drop started in 2015. It had started climbing again in 2019, right before the pandemic.

"But, as you might have noticed, that was 2019, and everything has changed," Mellman says.

She says the global tourism industry has been one of the hardest struck by the pandemic.

"The World Economic Forum said that the bailout from this pandemic could set the global tourism industry back 20 years. That's not a good sign for Florida, given that our economy is driven by tourism," Mellman says.

In late August, Visit Florida pushed for in-state tourism, and in early October, it began marketing vacations to people within driving distance of Florida. Now, it's looking to international markets like Canada.

"Well, we need a number of pieces that are missing from our tourism puzzle to fall back in place. Number one, international visitation," Visit Tampa Bay's President and CEO Santiago Corrada says.

He says international tourists tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic visitors. But restrictions on flight travel, cruise line suspensions, and cancellation of major events and conventions have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues to Tampa's tourism industry.

Corrada says in February, Hillsborough County's hotel occupancy was around 87%. That means about 9 out of 10 hotels were booked. But in April, it dropped to 22%—the lowest the county has seen in a long time. Now, hotel occupancy for Hillsborough county is around 50%.

"Hotel lodging and the expenses attributed there are only a small part of the puzzle. People who come and stay in a destination spend most on food and beverage, so that means our restaurants and venues like that. Then, entertainment, relaxation is number two, and then lodging is number three," Corrada says.

To attract visitors, Corrada says Visit Tampa Bay is focusing on safety by promoting recreational activities.

"You do it in a very subtle but a very visual way by showing a couple on the Riverwalk, and they're wearing masks. Or you show a family out on the river enjoying a very peaceful, entertaining venue where there are no large crowds, and there's a lot of social distancing," Corrada says.

Visit Lauderdale's JoNell Modys says people want to travel, but they need to feel safe doing so.

"Ideally, we need to see continual downturn in number of cases. Every time there's a spike in COVID-19 cases, you can see little moments of hesitation in terms of our visitation numbers, our hotel occupancy, and air traffic arrivals," Modys says.

She says it's hard to tell how the pandemic and upcoming flu season will impact tourists' decision to travel.

"One thing that we're already starting to see is that they're putting aside some of those concerns because they do feel the need to get away from their home, where they've been living, working, and having kids going to school in the same living room," Modys says.

She says local resorts are trying to fill that need by offering day packages for working adults. She says if families vacation for an extended time, odds are, one of the parents will need to take a zoom call.

"They can check into a hotel room for a day and have incredible amenities which may include a beach chair or a pool cabana, and a private room just for the day for $75 or so," Modys says.

Until more restrictions are lifted on international travel or a COVID-19 vaccine is released, local agencies will have to continue trying new ways to attract visitors.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.