Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President John Lai, center, receives a visit from Visit Florida President & CEO Dana Young, left, and Director of Legislative Affairs Katie Juckett to personally thank him for his efforts in saving the state's marketing agency from being defunded by lawmakers.  Photo provided.
Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President John Lai, center, receives a visit from Visit Florida President & CEO Dana Young, left, and Director of Legislative Affairs Katie Juckett to personally thank him for his efforts in saving the state's marketing agency from being defunded by lawmakers. Photo provided.

Florida lawmakers have slashed funding for the state’s marketing agency Visit Florida despite record tourism numbers that bring billions of dollars each year. The agency’s budget was cut from $75 million to $50 million and state leaders are asking how much of the visitor influx can be contributed to Visit Florida.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has deemed Visit Florida “unnecessary” and pushed to end state funding for the agency. He argues that Walt Disney World and other private-sector players already market Florida as a tourism destination and says there is no reason for taxpayers to support the industry.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President John Lai testified before the House and Senate Budget Committee on the importance of Visit Florida, notably to less prominent destinations across the state. He also pointed to Colorado, when its state tourism agency was defunded in the early 1990s, resulting in a loss of 30 percent of its tourism business and more than $1.4 billion in revenue within two years.

It’s been estimated that Colorado lost an additional $2.4 billion in tourism business by the end of the decade and attempts to market the state with private funding had little impact due to contributions being optional and unfocused. In 2000, a new Colorado Tourism Office was formed and the state has recently rebounded from the detriment of losing its state marketing arm.

Our little island, with an economy dependent on tourism, relies on Visit Florida to draw people to the state as a whole, so we can then draw them to us,” said Lai. “Our Chamber’s marketing dollars also go much further through grants from Visit Florida.”

After last year’s red tide outbreak scared tourists away from Southwest Florida, money from Visit Florida bolstered Lee County’s visitor counts. “Visit Florida played a huge part in getting the tourism numbers back, especially since our area already has trouble competing with larger destinations,” said Lai. Additionally, the agency’s budget has included emergency funds to respond to algae outbreaks, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The battle over Visit Florida comes amid a backdrop of ever-rising tourism – a record 124.7 million tourists visited the state in 2018 and 35.7 million people visited in the first quarter of 2019, a 5.8 percent increase over the same period last year. Tourism generated taxable spending that totaled $102 billion in 2018, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of data from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research.

Visit Florida’s reduced budget means its media dollars will have to work harder and some of the high-value television promotions are going to be off the table. It also means small businesses and local Chambers will struggle to plan for the next year, and Visit Florida could still disappear if it doesn’t prove its worth in the next legislative session.

I appreciate the fact we have the opportunity to convince (state lawmakers) next year,” said Lai. “However, similar to the water quality issues last year, we need our community to engage in the legislative process on behalf of our tourism economy – tell them why it is important.”