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Florida: Sunshine State’s Tourism Market Brighter Than Ever

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(Photo: A Syed)
(Photo: A Syed)

ECONOMY

  • Record 85.9 million visitors came to Florida last year
  • Florida tourism continues to outpace rest of US
  • Florida hotel room occupancy rates up 7% so far in 2012 

Florida’s tourism marketing arm Visit Florida reports that regional tourism reached record highs in 2011, logging more visitors than ever: The “Sunshine State” lured 85.9 million travelers last year, exceeding the previous high of 84.5 million in 2007.

There were increases in travel from across the board, including US residents from in-state, from out of Florida and a jarring jump in oversea visitors. Chris Thompson, the agency’s president and chief executive, pointed out that these visitors came despite what he called “challenging economic times.”

“Given the incredibly competitive global tourism marketplace, it is noteworthy that Florida's market share has continued to outpace the rest of the US,” he said.

The Toronto Star headlined the event saying “Florida Still Tourism King,” pointing out that no destination came close to Florida’s boom in tourism, which was 65% higher than the entirety of what Mexico expects next year.

Florida's market is also “70% higher than New York’s record year. It’s more than eight times Toronto’s own record, and 25 times the number of people who visited Israel last year,” wrote the Star.

How did Florida do it despite what has been termed the “Great Recession,” hurricanes and the BP oil spill that devastated Florida’s panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico?

Legoland Spurs Tourism

One factor in the mix was the October debut of Legoland in Winter Haven in Central Florida, an easy drive from Walt Disney World. The popular attraction reached capacity for the first time right after last Christmas.

“In addition to attracting Central Florida residents, Legoland is seeing strong interest from foreign travelers due to the popularity of the Lego brand and Legoland parks overseas,” wrote the DailyMail.com.

But an even more important factor was the improving economy. “With the economy getting better domestically and some very strong performances in South America — particularly in Brazil — it's really pushing tourism," said Robertico Croes, who is interim chair for UCF’s Rosen College's tourism and attractions department.

Overseas visitors are important because they tend to take longer trips and spend more while on vacation than domestic travelers, Croes told the Lakeland Ledger.

The number of overseas visitors in Florida jumped over 16% last year, while Canadian tourism grew 5.7%. 

The state's tourism industry appears to be recovering faster than the nation as a whole. Hotel rooms sold in the state for the first few months of the year are up 7% from a year ago, while the overall US rate is up 5.3%.

One caveat tourism officials are watching closely: gas prices. If the rise continues this summer, tourism officials fear, drive-in tourism could be impacted.

Key Statistics – Tourism in Florida (source: VISIT FLORIDA)

  • Florida’s visitors were 70% higher than New York’s own record year or eight times Toronto’s own visitor record.
  • The number of overseas visitors in Florida jumped over 16% last year, while Canadian tourism grew 5.7%.
  • Hotel rooms sold in the state for the first few months of the year are up 7% from a year ago, while the overall US rate is up 5.3%.

By David Wilkening for
David Wilkening is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit and Orlando. He now specializes in travel and real-estate business writing.

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