Virus Outbreak Florida Tourism

A man wearing a protective mask walks down an empty sidewalk past the Salumeria 104 restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Miami.

(The Center Square) – Florida hotels lost more than $3.5 billion in revenue between March and May, and nearly 40 percent of the 2.1 million Floridians who filed unemployment claims between March 15 and April 21 worked in tourism-generated jobs, according to Visit Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, which charts the disease’s impacts on tourism, the state’s largest industry.

Visit Florida Board of Directors Wednesday approved a $108 million fiscal year 2021 budget that earmarks $42 million for marketing that must not only convince travelers the Sunshine State is safe, but induce Floridians to prove it is so by patronizing in-state attractions.

Visit Florida, the embattled public-private tourism marketing agency that survived attempts to defund it out of existence the last two legislative sessions, is slated to receive $50 million in the $92.3 billion budget Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to trim up to $1 billion from before it goes into effect July 1.

That is the same amount Visit Florida received in this year’s budget, which saw its normal annual funding clipped from $76 million to $50 million. About $8.5 million is for 85 agency positions.

The $108 million budget adopted Wednesday presumes DeSantis does not cut the $50 million and includes $59.5 million in private-sector matches and in-kind promotional assistance.

Visit Florida also will receive $13 million from ad campaigns suspended after statewide shutdowns shuttered tourist attractions in March.

Florida is heavily dependent on sales tax revenues generated by tourism. This year, state economists project nearly $7 billion, about a quarter, of the estimated $30.4 billion in sales tax revenues the state will collect, will be tourism-related.

According to Visit Florida, tourism-generated revenues were down 10.7 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from 2019’s first quarter.

And those three months only include March, when the COVID-19 emergency emerged in the state. Numbers should be dramatically worse in April and May, although June could show improvement with Florida moving into Phase Two of its three-phase recovery plan on June 5 and many attractions reopening to varied degrees.

Regional impacts illustrate COVID-19’s impact. With Central Florida theme parks shuttered, Orlando conventions cancelled and Port Canaveral cruise ships not permitted to sail, April Orange County tourist development tax receipts, or “hotel taxes,” plummeted 97 percent and Orlando International Airport air traffic fell 96 percent compared April 2019.

During workshops earlier this week, Visit Florida directors agreed to tweak its marketing mission statement to tout the state’s “quality of life” in addition to its attractions.

“The quality of life idea would be one of the most significant changes we’re making,” Visit Florida Chief Operating Officer Craig Thomas said of a mission statement linking the tourism sector to Floridians’ quality of life.

Directors said perception, however, will continue to dog reopening efforts, especially with new case counts rising. A Harris Poll indicates more than one-third of Floridians may not dine out again until the emergency is considered over.

Director Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said she has told DeSantis that Visit Florida will need more than $50 million in the coming year if it is to help get the state’s largest industry off the mat.

“I mentioned directly to him the importance of putting more money in Visit Florida’s coffers,” Dover said. “And I said $50 million isn’t even enough when it’s under normal circumstances, but now that we have COVID to deal with, we need probably twice that much to just try to get the state back up on our feet.”

DeSantis “kind of chuckled,” she said, and said no more.