Domestic visits spur Florida tourism recovery

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Benefiting from U.S. tourists' reluctance to travel afar after the terrorist attacks, Florida's arrival numbers bounced back in the second quarter from heavy post-Sept. 11 declines.

To a standing ovation at the 35th Annual Governor's Conference on Tourism, Gov. Jeb Bush told a record 1,099 industry members that the visitor count reached an estimated 19.4 million in the April-through-June period, down only 1.5% from the same time a year before.

"This is wonderful news for all Floridians," Bush said. "Our recovery has been nothing short of phenomenal -- and is happening much more rapidly than anyone predicted."

According to Visit Florida, the public-private partnership that serves as the state's tourism marketing corporation, the recovery will continue in the second half of the year and throughout 2003.

The upbeat outlook was reflected in the title chosen by the conference organizers: "From survivin' to thrivin'."

According to an analysis by Wachovia Securities, Florida is outperforming the nation in recovering from the blow to tourism following the events of Sept. 11.

Florida officials credited the turnaround, in large part, to an emergency $20 million infusion of state advertising funds, matched by more than $25 million in extra private industry spending.

Visit Florida used the funds to launch an emergency advertising campaign that focused on discounts available in the state in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Keynoter William Norman, president of the Travel Industry Association, hailed Visit Florida for its post-Sept. 11 "leadership," and said it will be the model for a new private-public marketing organization that TIA seeks on the national level.

Barry Pitegoff, Visit Florida's vice president of research, said, "The latest figures provide convincing evidence our state's tourism industry is definitely on the way to full recovery."

He said Florida benefited by the wish of domestic travelers to remain closer to home.

For example, for the first time in many years most of Florida's domestic visitors came to the state by car rather than airplane -- 50.7% by car vs. 49.3% by air.

Although the head count was nearly back to normal, visitor spending remains down by more than 5% because of discounting and shorter trips, reported Visit Florida president Austin Mott.

He added, "The total revenue dollars are coming back, and we hope to recover before the year is out."

Also lagging are air travel and overseas visits, officials said.

Although air service returned to Florida more quickly than in the rest of the country, boardings in June at the state's 14 major airports still were down 6%.

The number of overseas visitors to Florida, which usually account for 8% of the total, was off in the second quarter by nearly 14%. Canadian visits, which account for 3% of the total, still were down 8.4%

Mott reported that advertising outlays in the fiscal year that started July 1 will return to normal levels.

About $21 million comes from Visit Florida's share of the state's car rental surcharge, and of that amount, $11 million will be used for advertising and $10 million for marketing and administrative costs.

Another $15 million to $18 million is expected to come from co-op ad partners.

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