TALLAHASSEE — As business restrictions were gradually lifted from the coronavirus shutdown, Florida’s tourism industry saw a nearly 32 percent drop in visitors during the third quarter compared to the same period last year, according to numbers released Thursday by Visit Florida.
The estimate of 22.112 million travelers from the start of July to the end of September is significantly below what the state needs from the vital revenue-generating industry, which helps fund the state budget and in good years produces up to 1.5 million jobs.
However, the third-quarter figure was a noticeable upgrade from the 60.5 percent drop in tourism experienced in April, May and June as businesses closed or scaled back to try to slow the spread of the virus. More than 900,000 Florida residents have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, since the pandemic started.
Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young called the third-quarter numbers encouraging.
“Although out-of-state visitation was down again in the third quarter of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are encouraged to see some signs of recovery in our visitation estimates, particularly with international travel almost nonexistent,” Young said in a prepared statement. “These positive trends coincide with Visit Florida’s recently launched marketing campaigns that highlight all of the safe vacation opportunities that Florida currently has to offer. While we still have a long way to go, Visit Florida will continue our efforts to expedite tourism’s recovery from the pandemic so Floridians can get back to work.”
The economic impact of the pandemic could stretch across years, even if vaccines start to become available in the coming months. Hotels continue to announce cutbacks, and the cruise industry is expecting a slow return to the seas next year.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis fully reopened the state at the end of September, the third quarter got underway with restaurants operating at a maximum of 50 percent indoor occupancy. Movie theaters, tattoo shops and major theme parks also had recently been given the go-ahead to reopen in most of the state.
SeaWorld and Universal Orlando opened their Florida parks in June, with Walt Disney properties following in mid-July. All imposed limits on attendance and imposed new health-related requirements.
All reported lower-than-expected crowds and later announced additional layoffs. However, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said last week that the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios were increasing capacity from 25 percent to 35 percent.
For many bars and craft breweries, the third quarter was mostly a dark period.
Those businesses had been allowed to reopen in early June as part of the second phase of DeSantis’ economic plan. But after widespread non-compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, bars and breweries that didn’t serve food were effectively closed again throughout July and August. That was lifted in mid-September.
The reopening of bars came as Visit Florida rolled out the first part of a $13 million campaign to revive tourism, urging Floridians to travel to other parts of the state. The advertising campaign has since been expanded to East Coast cities considered within short drives or flights to Florida.
The third-quarter figures primarily reflect people trekking to Florida from other parts of the country, according to Visit Florida.
In-state travel numbers aren’t reflected in the tourism figures. And visitor numbers from Canada and overseas are well off the 2019 marks.
In 2019, Florida recorded 32.412 million visitors in the third quarter and 100.61 million for the first nine months of the year. So far this year, the state’s overall tourism numbers are down 34 percent.
Among the 2020 third-quarter numbers, Florida saw just 229,000 overseas visitors and 6,000 Canadians, both down slightly from the second quarter, when there were 235,000 overseas visitors and 9,000 Canadians.
The state, which had been on a nine-year run of increasing tourist numbers, estimated nearly 2.65 million overseas visitors in the second and third quarters of 2019 and 1.433 million Canadians over those six months.
Florida ended 2019 with 131.4 million visitors. Barring an uptick in fourth-quarter travel, the state is on pace for 88.5 million visitors this year, which would be the lowest since the post-recession year of 2011.
Thursday’s release came as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated COVID-19 recommendations to advise against traveling to visit family and friends during the Thanksgiving holiday period.
The CDC guidance proposed a Thanksgiving in which people would celebrate with others who live in their households.
On its website, the CDC suggested “hosting a virtual meal with friends and family who don’t live with you. Have people share recipes and show off their turkey, dressing, and other dishes.”
The AAA auto club has projected 2.76 million Floridians will travel a substantial distance for Thanksgiving, down from 2.91 million a year ago.