Storms may stall tourism growth
Compiled from staff and wire reports
The numbers are going up, but more people are wary of coming to Florida during hurricane season in the future.
Published December 30, 2005
Florida's tourism industry is closing the books on a record year, but the outlook for 2006 isn't as rosy.
The lingering effects of two turbulent hurricane seasons will likely hurt business in the late summer and fall months and slow visitor growth next year, tourism officials say.
Hurricane worries and the effects of Red Tide have hit tourism in Pinellas County. Nearly 361,000 visitors came to Pinellas in October, a decrease of 6 percent from the same month last year.
It marked the fourth consecutive month of year-to-year declines.
Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, predicts a 3.2 percent increase in visitors for 2006. A 2 percent increase in visits to the United States is expected, but Florida tourism saw a 7 percent increase between 2003 and 2004.
Figures for 2005 won't be available until next February, although third-quarter estimates were more than 9 percent higher than the same period in 2004. That puts Florida on track to have more than 80-million annual visitors this year for the first time.
"I'm constantly surprised by the resiliency of Florida tourism," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "We've had threats of hurricanes, high gas prices. While there was a worry, the people coming to Florida have met and beat our expectations."
But recent surveys of potential visitors and tourism leaders in the state indicated "an altered perception (of Florida) because of the hurricanes," said Vanessa Welter of Visit Florida.
For example, 61 percent of people surveyed last month agreed hurricanes are an unusual occurance and the Sunshine State "is a fine place to visit during the summer months" compared to 74 percent in October 2004.
Forty-three percent of tourism leaders said their business was hurt because of hurricanes over the past two years.
But 57 percent expected their business to increase in 2006 and 9 percent said it would drop.
Florida tourism operators are coming off a strong year.
Walt Disney World attendance grew by 10 percent in the last quarter of the company's fiscal year, led by visits from local and international travelers, said Jacquee Polak of Disney.
Anecdotal evidence points to a recovery around the state in international visitors, whose numbers dipped precipitously after the Sept. 11 attacks, tourism officials said.
"International visitors have absolutely, completely recovered," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We've seen an increase in U.K., German and Canadian business here."
Many businesses, such as the Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront Resort, that closed their doors for repairs after the hurricanes of 2004 reopened to stronger business in 2005. The resort's fortunes, like much of Brevard County's tourism industry, were boosted by the return to flight of the space shuttle.
"We renovated after the hurricanes because we had to, and we were able to attract a larger amount of clientele," said Shay Baranowski, general manager of the resort, which closed for four months at the end of 2004. "It just has been a phenomenal year."
But hurricanes remain on the minds of many tourism operators. To combat the images of flooded streets and blown-off roofs, Visit Florida in 2006 will focus more on advertising to the meeting and convention market and less on leisure travelers.
The Greater Naples, Marco Island & Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates group business in August, September and October - the most active months of the hurricane season - has declined by almost half since the 2004 hurricanes, a loss of $2-million to $3-million. Wilma, a Category 3 hurricane, made landfall south of Marco Island in October but left the area's tourism infrastructure relatively unscathed.
Across the state, Wilma caused the postponement of two big October tourism events, Fantasy Fest in Key West and a boat show in Fort Lauderdale.
"Groups that have traditionally come here during those time periods have not rescheduled their meetings. They're either scheduling at other times of the year or going to other destinations outside of Florida," said Jack Wert, executive director of the Greater Naples tourism bureau.
Visit Florida has offered insurance to business groups that would cover costs from having to reschedule meetings because of hurricanes.
The Naples area tourism bureau, though, may focus its marketing efforts on senior citizens for those months rather than group business, but "the unfortunate part is it's very difficult to replace lost group business with leisure travel," Wert said.
"You can't get enough of them and they don't spend the kind of money that groups spend, so it's definitely a net loss," he said.
Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.
[Last modified December 30, 2005, 00:56:10]
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