Florida continues to draw visitors to the Sunshine State in record numbers, but dark clouds loom on the horizon for the state’s tourism industry in the form of budget cuts enacted by the state Legislature last week.
Gov. Rick Scott was in Miami Monday to announce tourism numbers for the first quarter of 2017. According to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, 31.1 million people visited the state in the first three months of this year. That’s the highest quarterly visitor total in state history.
That represents a 2.5 percent increase over the same time frame in 2016.
Florida tourism industry is coming off another record year in 2016 when close to 113 million people visited to Florida.
The release of the first quarter numbers came with a warning from Scott that potential budget cuts could greatly negate the gains Florida’s tourism industry has made in recent years
“This historic number would not have been possible without the significant funding we have invested in Visit Florida over the past few years,” Gov. Scott said. “ It is disappointing that the Florida Legislature made a shortsighted decision to jeopardize the growth of our tourism industry and the 1.4 million jobs that rely on it by cutting funding to Visit Florida by 67 percent.”
The budget plan passed by the Legislature last week slashes funding for Visit Florida from the current level of $82 million down to $25 million for the new fiscal year which begins on July 1.
As part of Scott’s legislative budget priorities the governor proposed Increasing Visit Florida’s funding level to $100 million. But the issue of accountability and Visit Florida’s spending practices came up during the session after the agency refused to release details about a secret $1 million deal it made with South Florida rapper Pitbull to promote the state.
Visit Florida’s CEO Ken Lawson says despite the potential spending cuts to the agency, Visit Florida will continue to focus on it’s mission to market the state’s tourism industry.
“Because the Legislature decided to inadequately fund Visit Florida, our organization is going to have to make tough decisions in the coming weeks and will not be able to compete with destinations like California and Texas,” said Lawson. “We will strive every day so Florida does not become another case study like other states who lost billions of dollars in revenue due to cutting tourism marketing dollars.”
In a letter to legislative leaders earlier this month, Lawson said cutting Visit Florida’s budget would greatly impact the state’s ability to market itself to international tourists and would dramatically curtail the number of visitors to Florida.
Lawson said funding Visit Florida at the level proposed in the Legislature’s budget bill would reduce the number of people visiting state by about 30 million a year–a 29 percent reduction in the state’s market share.
“Every 10% loss in overall visitation puts 150,000 Florida jobs at risk,” Lawson told legislative leaders.
Gov. Scott has hinted that he may veto the entire budget and bring the Legislature back to start all over again.
“Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. In business, you would never stop marketing when you start to see great results,” Scott added. ”Instead of decimating funding to Visit Florida,, we should be investing in tourism marketing so we can continue to bring record visitors to our state.”
The option of a complete budget veto might not offer much hope for Visit Florida.
State lawmakers could choose to override a budget veto, which would require a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate. When the Legislature adopted the budget last week, the vote tallies in both chambers exceeded the required two-thirds vote needed for an override.