Florida's economy, like many other coastal states, is largely dependent on tourism as its major form of revenue. With almost 1,200 miles of coastline; more than 11,000 miles of streams, rivers and waterways; and numerous state and national parks and preserves, tourism remains the Sunshine State's biggest economic driver.

The 2016 statistics from Visit Florida report that the state attracted 112 million visitors, which generated $108 billion for the state's economy and supported 1.4 million jobs. Positions in tourism and hospitality were the biggest driver of job growth in 2016. Orlando alone surpassed tourism numbers for the all U.S. cities in 2016, welcoming 68 million visitors.

But record-breaking success does not mean that tourism officials in the state are without their concerns and suggestions for improvement. Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson gathered a panel of experts in tourism and science as well as other prominent Floridians to discuss those concerns and ideas at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Aug. 10. Titled "Threats Facing Florida's Tourism Driven Economy," the hearing focused on negative impacts to Florida's tourism industry and ways to protect against them and bolster the product.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)

Participants included Sherry Larken, associate dean for research at the University of Florida; Mitchell Roffer, president of Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecast Service; Robin Sollie, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce; and Maryann Ferenc, CEO of restaurant group Mise en Place and a member of the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association and Brand USA.

Larkin began the discussion with testimony regarding what makes Florida's tourism economy so unique. "Florida's tourism is based on our natural resources, from our spring water that flows to our coasts to our diverse flora and fauna that we share our coastal habitats with," she commented. Preserving these assets is in the best interest of all those who both live in Florida and visit the state, Larkin said.

Per recent data, she pointed out that Florida's "brand" comprises nine main features that tourists find attractive. Beaches are the most important feature but only account for 26% of Florida's attractiveness to visitors. Another feature that drives tourism to the state is its diversity of wildlife and geology, including natural springs, rivers and wetlands.

Larkin's research places emphasis on establishing no-wake zones in Lee County to assist with recreational boating while maintaining wildlife, preventing algae blooms in the St. John's River, where recreational water sports like kayaking, scuba diving and fishing are prevalent, and investing in artificial reefs to assist with the rebuilding and repopulating of existing reefs that may have been damaged due to erosion, spills or over-fishing.

Robin Sollie represents more than 730 businesses through her work with the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. The main threats she determined as high impact are oil drilling off Florida's coasts; hurricanes; storm surge; and the continued funding of tourism organizations within the state, such as Visit Florida and Brand USA.

Sollie cited beach and waterfront activities as the No. 1 reason tourists come to the state. "Beach nourishment is vital to the health of the beaches for our visitors and residents to enjoy as well as to our wildlife [birds and turtles]," she said, urging Nelson to continue beach nourishment efforts, especially during times of significant erosion like tropical storms and hurricanes.

Ferenc made a case for the continued funding and improvements to the state's airports. "The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that travel demand will exceed capacity at many of the nation's largest airports within the next 15 years unless airports achieve sustainable levels of capital investment," she said. She pointed out that data from the FAA also shows that the nation's airports will eventually experience a Thanksgiving weekend-level crush once a week if improvements aren't made.

Ferenc also discussed the perception of hospitality in the U.S., and Florida in particular, to foreign visitors. In recent months, the number of visitors from Latin American and Middle Eastern countries as well as Britain has diminished in response to the perception of feeling unwelcome in the U.S. Ferenc warned against rhetoric that might alienate international visitors, especially to Florida, where the economy is so dependent on these tourism dollars.

"While the United States and states like Florida in particular are highly attractive destinations, foreign travelers have countless other choices," said Ferenc. "And it is clear that one factor in consumer decisions about where to travel is the perception of a potential destination's hospitality." Ferenc suggested that there is still time to reverse these trends, as international travel plans are often made months in advance.

Nelson was encouraged by the large number of experts and industry leaders who wanted to participate in the panel, acknowledging the gravity and importance of addressing issues of conservation, transportation and marketing. He also praised the public-private partnerships between hoteliers and other tourism entrepreneurs and organizations and the local, state and federal governments in raising awareness of these issues while maintaining Florida as a highly desirable tourist destination.

Holly V. Kapherr is a writer based in Orlando. Previously, she was editor of Caribbean Travel + Life and Florida Travel + Life, and senior editor at Islands and Destination Weddings & Honeymoons. She is filling in for Megan Padilla during August. 

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