Florida Tourism Flattens

SARASOTA—Florida's final 2006 tourism numbers are expected to be flat or even down a bit from the state's record-breaking year in 2005, according to Eileen Forrow, vice president of sales, Visit Florida, speaking to media at the annual Florida Huddle in Sarasota Jan. 21–23. Forrow cited anti-American sentiment abroad, increased competition from other destinations, hassles to enter the U.S. and robust gas prices that impact drive trips. Eileen Forrow, Visit Florida, and Steve Hayes of the Tampa Bay CVB, preparing for next year's Florida Huddle, which will take place during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival

Visitors also still have concerns about the "windy" factor, she said, referring to Florida's four major hurricanes of two years ago as well as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. A lack of adequate growth in Visit Florida's funding was cited by Donna Ross, president and CEO, the Florida Attractions Association, Tallahassee, as one difficulty in maintaining record numbers. Ross said Visit Florida's budget has increased just a million or so dollars over the past few years, while ad rates during the same period soared 37 percent.

"There's a lot to overcome," acknowledges Forrow. But she also said she was encouraged about the state's tourism potential, that Visit Florida would strive to be more effective. On the positive side, last summer, there were no major storms in Florida. In addition, Visit Florida recently launched five international web sites: in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and "the Queen's English" for the U.K., and those are creating international buzz.

Many of Huddle's estimated 189 exhibitors, representing some 324 Florida properties, said that while occupancies may be down, per diem rates are generally up. More upscale properties have also opened.

Among the hotel happenings, Ocean Properties Ltd. exclusively told Travel Agent that it will reflag the Holiday Inn Treasure Island, off St. Petersburg's coastline, into a Residence Inn by Marriott. Elsewhere, Little Harbor in Ruskin, FL, is adding a new $48 million resort/condominium tower; the $170 million Sandpearl Resort opens in July on ClearwaterBeach; the Hollywood Beach Sian, a new CrownePlaza, opens in March; the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa, Fort MyersBeach, is opening a new villa building and adding a water spray park.

Nearly 200 Huddle buyers—including for the first time, buyers from Russia and Hungary—also learned about new attraction features. A new $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience opens this summer at Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Gatorland in Orlando will debut a new GatorGullySplashPark this spring. In Fort Myers, the Edison & Ford Winter Estate now boasts $10 million in upgrades. The Miami Seaquarium's staff told Travel Agent that with a new dolphin facility the slots for dolphin swims will jump from 36 to more than 120 daily.

Virginia Haley, president, Sarasota & Her Islands Convention & Visitors Bureau, doesn't expect an immediate infusion of tourists from hosting Huddle. But she believes that Sarasota—given its hefty arts focus—sells itself best when visitors see it first-hand, so she expects more tourists will come after buyers design new inbound tour product. Meanwhile, the industry is preparing for next year's Huddle, which will be in TampaBay during the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival.