Gov. Bush may act to encourage Northern visitors
By STEVE BOUSQUET
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- Hoping to revive his state's troubled tourism industry, Gov. Jeb Bush wants to fly north this weekend and personally deliver a message to wary travelers: "Don't forget Florida."
Spokeswoman Liz Hirst said Bush may go to Boston and Chicago, two big media markets that also act as feeder markets for Florida's cruise industry. Bush would go there on commercial flights to show his faith in flying, Hirst said.
The cruise industry, a vital cog in Florida's tourism engine, has been hit especially hard by the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks because most cruise passengers reach Florida by air. Airline traffic has been way off since the Sept. 11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and people who take multiday cruises have a huge "multiplier" effect on the economy as they stay in hotels, buy gifts, dine and tip service workers.
"We're trying to make a trip up north," Bush said. "It's starting to get cold up there, and it's time, time for them to come down to Florida. This is serious business for our state, and there's an expectation for the governor to lead in this regard."
On a day when Delta Air Lines, which has a hub in Orlando, announced plans to eliminate at least 15 percent of its work force, Bush emphasized that the key to the revival of tourism in Florida is for people to start flying.
"We have to get people confident about flying again or our state will be hurt economically," Bush said. "We may be a drag on the economy now because of our dependence on air travel."
Bush's personal promotion of out-of-state visitors follows a plea by the tourism industry for him to promote travel by Floridians to close some of the gap in business. When callers to the governor's office are put on hold, they hear Bush making an in-state tourism pitch as The Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background.
"Now is the time to visit a part of the state you may never have seen," Bush says. "See what you've been missing."
The sharp dropoff in air travel has pummeled the car rental industry in the Sunshine State, a trend that has ominous repercussions for the state budget. A rental car surcharge helps pay for a heavy Florida tourism advertising campaign. With tourism slowing, advertising is considered more crucial than ever, and Bush has assured industry leaders that he opposes any efforts to cut advertising. That means another revenue source will have to be used.
Bush spent an hour on a conference call Tuesday with leaders of chambers of commerce across the state, brainstorming ways to promote tourism. He offered to speak directly with organizations considering canceling conventions in Florida, and he suggested a "Visit Florida" ad campaign to revive tourism.
Miami-based Carnival Corp., the nation's leading cruise company, said its ships that departed on trips between Sept. 19 and Sept. 23 were 97.7 percent occupied, as travel rebounded a week after the attacks. The company said those occupancy rates represent an increase from the week of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Delays for travelers from tighter security at airport and seaports have been less than anticipated, Carnival said. The company operates ships under six brands, including Holland America and Cunard.
The company said on Sept. 17 that ships were sailing as much as 25 percent empty and bookings were 60 percent below normal.
Carnival said travel delays as a result of tighter security and airports and seaports were less than had been anticipated.
Carnival shares, after falling 27 percent from Sept. 10 through Tuesday, rose $1.18 to close at $21.91 in Wednesday's trading. Shares of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the No. 2 cruise company, rose 58 cents to $10.18.
Another company, Renaissance Cruises Inc., closed Tuesday and is taking passengers and crew members off its ships, according to the Web site. Renaissance operated 10 ships with 3,700 berths, or 3.9 percent of the North American supply, industry analyst Robin Farley has said.
Bush said he and the state Legislature are considering diverting aviation fuel tax revenue to pay for security improvements at airports. That money is now used for expanding capacity at airports around the state.
- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan, Bloomberg News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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