It's the little guy that will suffer if Visit Florida gets defunded

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Crystal River, which features swim with a manatee tours, gets 20% of its visitors from overseas. That's due in part to marketing through Visit Florida at European tourism conventions.
Crystal River, which features swim with a manatee tours, gets 20% of its visitors from overseas. That's due in part to marketing through Visit Florida at European tourism conventions.
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

For the third year running, a proposal to deauthorize Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism promotion agency, has the backing of the top legislator in the Florida House of Representatives. In addition, there is no money for Visit Florida in the body's proposed 2020-21 budget, although Florida's governor and state Senate would provide funding.

So who would be hurt if Visit Florida is axed from the state budget, as Florida speaker Jose Oliva apparently intends?

The list starts with the smaller destinations in Florida, many of them without the means or expertise to effecttively market themselves, especially on a global scale.

Of Florida's 67 counties, five of them host more than half the visitors who came to the state in 2019.  Not too surprisingly, they are the three South Florida powerhouses -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties -- and two Central Florida counties, Orange and Osceola.

Jointly, those five generate 52% of the bed taxes paid by tourists coming to Florida, with the remaining 48% generated by the other 62 counties.

One of Oliva's arguments is that the local bed taxes are sufficient to keep Florida's tourism engines humming. But clearly not all of the bed tax is devoted to luring tourists.

Bed taxes go for a variety of purposes, including in some cases financing sports stadiums. In Miami-Dade, for example, of the 6% local tax added on to a hotel bill, 3% goes to convention development, 1% is a Professional Sports Facility tax and 2% is for tourism development, which Miami-Dade undertakes on its own.

Sarasota's 5% tax supports tourism promotion; beach maintenance and renourishment; the arts; a sports stadium; and the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center.

Beyond that, in smaller counties it isn't enough to make a difference -- to hire top marketers, make meaningful media buys and attract visitors from overseas. This in a state that, for better or worse, shuns an income tax and relies on sales taxes paid in part by out-of-state and foreign visitors to fund state services.

Dana Young, president of Visit Florida, cites Crystal River as a good example of the difference Visit Florida makes.  The small town on Kings Bay in Citrus County near Ocala is home to 800 to 1,000 manatees in the winter months, a prime tourist attraction.

Young said Crystal River (pop. 3,118) has paid a couple thousand dollars a year to rent space within the larger Visit Florida booth at international tourism shows such as World Travel Market in London and ITB-Berlin.

Citrus County bed taxes couldn't begin to justify an independent trip to those shows. Young said after five years of marketing, Crystal River last year attracted 20% of its visitors from overseas. "This is a place that if they're not telling the world -- in conjunction with us because we facilitate that -- they're even there, no one is going to come," Young said.

As a point of contrast, Young said that Palm Beach County, with all of its independent resources, attracted 13% of its visitors from abroad last year. ((Palm Beach County is not a partner in Visit Florida.)

Oliva's desire to deep-six Visit Florida remains subject to negotiation with the Florida Senate and the governor, who thus far have each earmarked $50 million in their budgets for Visit Florida. That would maintain the status quo.

Last year's negotiations produced a 34% cut in funding, from $76 million to $50 million. Another such "compromise" could portend a drop in future years in the estimated 101 million visitors to the Sunshine State in 2019.

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