by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
Florida lawmakers slashed funding for the state’s tourism agency Visit Florida amid a backdrop of ever-rising tourism – a record 127 million tourists visited the state in 2018 and 69.7 million people visited in the first six months of 2019. However, state leaders are asking how much of the visitor influx can be contributed to Visit Florida.
“If we are not actively marketing your destination, (tourists) are not coming,” said Visit Florida President & CEO Dana Young, who was one of the guest speakers at the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce first Legislative Power Hour on Aug. 29. “Our job is to promote Florida throughout the United States and the world and everything else is superfluous.”
Young discussed the importance of the agency’s international marketing reach and reported travelers from outside the country spend twice as much money and stay longer versus domestic visitors. She pointed to Crystal River, a small coastal city in western Florida where 20 percent of its tourism is international due to partnering with the agency.
“You cannot tell me somebody from Berlin is going to find Crystal River, if they haven’t seen marketing for it,” said Young. She went on to say that Florida is a diverse destination, with more than Disney World, and people need to know about the less prominent destinations across the state. “If we are not telling Florida’s story and showing the broad view of the state, who will,” Young said. “That is why Visit Florida is important.”
Chamber President John Lai advocated on behalf of the agency before the House and Senate Budget Committee earlier this year. He says Visit Florida played a huge part in getting the islands’ tourism numbers back after last year’s red tide and Blue Green Algae crisis. The agency’s budget, which was cut from $75 million to $50 million, includes emergency funds to respond to algae outbreaks, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Additionally, tourism generated taxable spending that totaled $102 billion in 2018, according to data from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research. The state’s tourism industry saves every resident $1,500 in taxes each year and one in six jobs is supported by it. The $3 billion in state sales tax generated by tourism partially supports environmental protection efforts, water quality, and improving schools.
The threat of Visit Florida disappearing if it doesn’t prove its worth in the next legislative session made it one of the Chamber’s priorities for 2020, along with water quality. Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel was the second guest speaker at the power hour and addressed the Chamber’s water quality initiatives.
She discussed the continued need for developing policy to effectively deal with stormwater and wastewater pollution sources; sustaining funding levels to accomplish the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir; the objectives of sending clean water south as quickly as possible; and the implementation of critical infrastructure projects north and south of Lake Okeechobee.
Wessel called this a “stop pollution revolution” with the goal of prevention. “If the house is on fire, you don’t throw kindling on it,” she said.
There were 40 water quality related bills in the last legislative session that were not passed and barely gained traction, even after red tide and Blue Green Algae scared tourists away, cost billions in tourism dollars and caused health concerns. “We are going to take this revolution and try to move forward (in the upcoming legislative session) for the prevention, protection and public health,” said Wessel.
The 2020 legislative session begins the second week of January, since it’s an election year, and committee meetings start mid-September. The SCCF website includes a legislative session tracker for the public to actively participate in bills the organization is following.