Despite weathering a stormy year — both in terms of politics and Mother Nature — 2017 turned-out to be another record-setting for Florida’s tourism industry, although it wasn’t quite the year the state had been hoping for.
Gov. Rick Scott announced 116.5 million people visited the Sunshine State last year. That represents a 3.6 percent increase over the previous year which was also a record.
“Because of Visit Florida’s aggressive marketing efforts to make sure families across the world knew that Florida was open to visitors following Hurricane Irma, we are able to celebrate another record-breaking year for tourism,” Scott said. “This is especially great news for the 1.4 million jobs that rely on our growing tourism industry.”
The 2017 number falls short of the goal of 120 million visitors Scott and Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, had set for last year.
The number of visitors could have been greater had it not been for Irma’s destruction across much of the state. A recent study by Visit Florida shows the state lost 1.8 million visitors due to Irma. The loss of visitors translates into a $1.5 billion dollar loss to the state from tourist spending.
The record-setting numbers came despite an overall difficult year for the tourism industry in Florida.
The tourism industry entered last year on a positive note. The number of visitors had grown steadily over the previous seven years. But, in late 2016 and early 2017, Visit Florida’s spending practices came under scrutiny by leaders in the Florida House, specifically by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. The fiscally conservative Corcoran was upset with Visit Florida’s secretive business deals and how much money it was spending.
The dispute left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the tourism marketing agency for months.
In May of last year, when the Legislature passed its budget for the current fiscal year, funding for the tourism agency was slashed by two-thirds. Scott and legislative leaders were able to work out a plan to restore Visit Florida’s budget that was approved in a special session in June.
The plan brought tighter budget controls and more transparency to how the agency spends its money. The turmoil led to a turnover in the number of the agency’s top executives. The added transparency resulted in a number of local tourism boards cutting ties with Visit Florida to avoid falling under the tighter financial controls the state was imposing on the state agency.
After weathering that storm, the tourism industry was face with another crisis — Hurricane Irma.
Irma slammed into the Florida Keys on September 10 and made a second landfall later that day in the Naples area causing heavy damage to businesses in the Keys and Southwest Florida, both prime destinations for visitors.
Visit Florida quickly launched a media campaign to let the rest of the world know that, despite damage to some areas, the state was still open for business.
“Because of the cutting-edge marketing programs at Visit Florida, particularly following Hurricane Irma, we were able to increase total visitation by 3.6 percent over last year, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue for the state,” said Ken Lawson, President and CEO of Visit Florida. “We are continuing to aggressively market the Sunshine State to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”
Even with the difficulties posed to tourism by Hurricane Irma, the state still ended the year with strong visitor numbers. The state saw 28.5 million visitors in the fourth quarter of 2017. That represents an increase of 5.5 percent over the previous year.
Despite the problems Florida’s tourism experienced last year, the governor says he is proud of what the state accomplished.
“We will continue to market our state as the number one global destination for tourism,” Scott added.