TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — COVID-19 ended a decade of record-setting tourism numbers in Florida, with the industry seeing a 34 percent drop in visitors in 2020 compared to the prior year.
The state tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida posted preliminary figures from the fourth quarter and for the full year late Monday, showing 86.714 million visitors to the state during 2020. That was the lowest annual total since 2010.
Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said an estimated 20.625 million travelers in the fourth quarter "exceeded our expectations." Still, the visitor count for the year might be reduced as figures are refined.
"Please note that due to the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on data used to produce visitor estimates, the numbers provided below are likely to face larger-than-normal revisions as new data become available," the agency said in a note posted online with the tourism estimates.
Specifically, Visit Florida believes an estimated 3.236 million overseas visitors is about 400,000 too high.
But Young remained optimistic as the state continues to slowly expand marketing efforts across the nation.
"Many of Florida's top origin markets were under stricter travel restrictions in Q4 than the previous quarter, but thanks to our advertising in the Southeast, visitation from those states remains strong," Young said in a statement. "Visit Florida's marketing has been integral to Florida's economic recovery and will continue to propel our tourism industry forward in 2021."
The state attracted a record 131.42 million tourists in 2019, the culmination of year-to-year growth since 2009 when Florida had 80.879 million visitors. The hospitality and leisure industries handled 82.315 million visitors in 2010 and 87.307 million in 2011. Since 2015, the state had drawn more than 100 million visitors a year.
The new estimates were released Monday as the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee advanced a proposal (SB 778) that would eliminate a potential Oct. 1, 2023, repeal date for Visit Florida and permit the agency to carry forward unused money from budget year to budget year.
"No one is going to argue that tourism is not the largest industry in the state of Florida. We live by it or we will die by it," said committee Chairman Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican who is sponsoring the bill. “And whatever we can do to encourage not only the 22 million of us that travel intrastate, but 131 million who hopefully will come back and visit what we have to offer and spend their dollars here, cannot be overlooked. And we will not recover economically until that piece of that economy returns to near normalcy or normalcy."
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, questioned the state spending on the agency, noting with a "scarcity of dollars" it doesn’t make "good fiscal sense" to allow an agency to rollover unused dollars.
"I'm a fan of the idea of Visit Florida, but I think we can get a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, probably for free, to make a lot of good pitches for the state of Florida as opposed to paying some people," Pizzo said. "I need to see the real accounting and forensics on this."
During the 2020 legislative session, House leaders repeated a push to end Visit Florida, questioning the effectiveness of spending for statewide marketing. A compromise was reached with the Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis as the pandemic took hold to extend Visit Florida's operations for three years. The agency also received $50 million in state funding, the same amount DeSantis has requested for next fiscal year.
The House version of Hooper's bill (HB 675) has not been assigned to committees.
Pizzo's comments echoed, in part, opposition to the Senate bill by Americans for Prosperity-Florida Policy Director Phillip Suderman.
"The role of government is not to act as an ad agency, and it should instead focus on the core function of government that society needs to operate. Visit Florida is not one of those vital roles," Suderman said. "The goal for government is even more important now as our nation and our state looks to move forward from the economic effects of COVID-19."
In backing the legislation, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association General Counsel Samantha Padgett said Visit Florida can plan long-term if it doesn't have to "fight for their life every single year."
Hooper noted that in 2018, Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature's Office of Economic & Demographic Research, warned that tourism-related revenue losses posed the greatest potential risk to Florida's economic outlook.
"I think she still stands by that prediction," Hooper said.
Last month, Baker advised lawmakers that despite improved tax-revenue numbers in December, big-spending foreign tourists aren't expected to flock soon to Florida and that it may not be until 2024 before normalcy returns to the hospitality and leisure industries, which have suffered the most from the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the state estimated 1.6 million jobs were supported by tourism. Last week, the U.S. Travel Association reported four in 10 jobs lost nationally over the past year were in the leisure and hospitality industries.
According to the Visit Florida numbers, the state drew an estimated 20.62 million visitors in the fourth quarter of 2020, down 33.1 percent from the prior year. The pandemic had cut tourism by 60.3 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and 32.7 percent in the third quarter.
The 82.19 million travelers from other parts of the nation for 2020 was a 29.7 percent reduction from 2019. The 1.286 million Canadian visitors in 2020 represented a 64.5 percent year-to-year drop.