Florida tourism industry flying high this summer

Sunday, June 19, 2005

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Just as the summer vacation season kicks off, virtually every tourism indicator is going up in Florida -- from hotel occupancy and room rates to the number of visitors.

That's especially welcome news to the tourism industry here, which had concerns that last summer's hurricanes might scare away this summer's visitors.

Despite the four storms that struck in August and September of 2004, Florida still had a record number of visitors last year. Tourism spending also reached a record $57 billion, up 10.8 percent from $51.5 billion in 2003.

A March survey showed that only one in every 10 potential visitors was less likely to visit Florida because of hurricanes, down from one in five in October. And tourism spending for January and February rose to $10.6 billion, up 10.9 percent from the same months last year.

"Tourism numbers are up this year just like everything else," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "The irony is that even though we were devastated by these storms, the economy in our state has never been stronger."

Advertising raises interest

Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, has increased advertising to raise Florida's profile as a destination. The agency is also paying for "Cover your event" insurance to soothe the fears of convention organizers, said agency spokeswoman Vanessa Welter. The coverage will pay for rescheduling costs up to $200,000 for large events if a hurricane disrupts plans from August through October, and so far $4.2 million in coverage has been arranged.

The insurance seems to be working in Florida's biggest tourism market -- the Orlando area, which draws half the state's visitors. Only five of 988 meetings scheduled for this year have changed plans, said Danielle Saba Courtenay, a spokeswoman for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.

New rides and attractions at central Florida theme parks are also expected to draw more visitors, she said. Walt Disney World also expects visitors to flock to its four Florida theme parks as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland in California, park spokeswoman Kim Prunty said.

"There's lots of reasons for people to return to Orlando even if they've been here last year," Courtenay said.

That's the same in the Miami area, said William Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said high-profile events like the MTV Video Music Awards boost Miami's already-high cachet and bring people back.

Florida is also the capital of the cruise industry -- about two-thirds of U.S. passengers leave from the state. Cruise companies expect to carry a record 11 million passengers this year, said Terry Dale, president of the Cruise Lines International Association.

"I think that the consumer clearly understands that they're a tremendous value, while there has been slight increases in prices," he said.

A few areas are still contending with hurricane issues, even those that weren't directly hit by the storms. The popular spring break destination of Panama City Beach is combatting the perception that it sustained heavy damage, although it's nearly 100 miles away from where Hurricane Ivan struck worst.

In Pensacola Beach, Fred Simmons is still struggling to repair his Paradise Inn.

He said it was difficult to get contractors and materials to fix hurricane damage and less than half of the inn's 58 rooms were ready for Memorial Day weekend. The rest should be repaired by July.

But even he is noticing the booming demand.

"Our phones are ringing off the hook," he said. "You've got people that've been coming here for years. Even though we're badly damaged, the noise from the construction, they don't seem to care."

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