Millions of Americans are taking to the roads, the skies, the railways and the waterways during this Fourth of July holiday travel period.
Auto club AAA estimates 44 million Americans, including two million Floridians, are traveling this week. The travel period began Friday and runs through Tuesday.
Florida tourism officials are hoping many of those travelers come to the Sunshine State.
The state’s tourism numbers have seen steady growth over the past five years. Florida hosted a record 112.3 million visitors last year.
The start of 2017 was promising for the tourism industry. For the the first three months of this year, the Florida tourism industry had its best quarter ever. More than 31 people came to Florida. That’s a 2.5 percent increase over a year ago.
It put Florida on course to meet its goal of 120 million visitors this year.
But a series of events may have taken some of the wind out of the industry’s sails.
“If we can hit it, it’s spectacular, but I think it’s quite optimistic,” Gene Prescott, a Visit Florida board member stated at a recent board meeting. Prescott is the treasurer of the Biltmore Hotel in Miami.
The first quarter gains were the result of an increase in domestic travelers. During that period, the state saw a 1.8 percent drop in international visitors due in part to a stronger U.S. dollar, which makes travel to the U.S. and Florida less attractive to those from other countries.
Economic and political problems in some South American countries are also to blame. Meanwhile, more Canadians are choosing to visit destinations other than Florida.
Then there was the funding dispute for Visit Florida. The original budget approved by the Legislature in early May basically gutted the marketing agency’s funding until Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders orchestrated a plan to restore Visit Florida’s budget that was approved in a special session last month.
The dispute left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the tourism marketing agency for months. The plan to restore funding to Visit Florida also brought tighter budget controls and more transparency in how the agency spends its money.
The turmoil led to a turnover in the number of the agency’s top executives.
Visit Florida isn’t ready to toss in the towel.
While the first half of 2017 has been tumultuous for the marketing agency, officials remain hopeful about the industry’s future.
“We are working every day to ensure that we meet our goal of attracting a record 120 million visitors to our state,” said Stephen Lawson, VISIT FLORIDA Vice President of Government Affairs. “Our aggressive new marketing plan, approved by the Board last week, includes historic levels of funding for both our domestic and international marketing programs, and gives us the tools we need to reach our goal.”