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Tourism Numbers Getting Better – But Florida Still Struggles

People walking along street in theme park
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Masks had been required at Walt Disney World since the summer of 2020.

The new estimates by Visit Florida included a revision of the overall numbers for 2020 that indicates the pandemic was worse on the leisure and hospitality industry than previously projected.

Florida’s tourism industry saw improvement during the first three months of 2021, but the number of visitors was still down 14 percent from a year earlier as the state continued to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Travel-industry officials can envision bluer economic skies ahead as businesses scale back mask requirements and other social-distancing rules imposed to combat the virus that has killed more than 36,000 Floridians.

Florida drew 26.16 million visitors from Jan. 1 to March 31, down from 30.4 million tourists during the first quarter of 2020, according to numbers posted late Friday by the state tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida. The pandemic began hammering the state’s economy in March 2020, amid a period that includes tourist draws such as spring break and baseball spring training.

The number of tourists fell to 9.92 million in the second quarter of 2020, a 69.4 percent drop from the prior year, before increasing to 20.33 million in the third quarter and 19.096 million for the fourth quarter.

The new estimates by Visit Florida included a revision of the overall numbers for 2020 that indicates the pandemic was worse on the leisure and hospitality industry than previously projected.

The agency in March estimated Florida had 86.714 million visitors in 2020. With the revision, Florida’s 2020 total was set at 79.75 million, a 39.3 percent drop from 2019.

The 2020 figures were the lowest in a decade for a state that relies heavily on tourism to fuel its economy. Until the pandemic, Florida posted nine consecutive years of increased tourism numbers, topped by 131.4 million travelers in 2019.

The new numbers come as the state and federal governments battle in court over the idled cruise-ship industry and as major Orlando theme parks and other businesses have changed mask-wearing rules.

Disney, which has increased the number of visitors allowed into its parks, and Universal now allow visitors to remove masks when in outdoor common areas, such as Main Street U.S.A. of the Magic Kingdom, and pool decks.

“If anybody’s been in Florida in the middle of summer with a mask on, that could be quite daunting,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said during the company’s quarterly earnings call with investors on Thursday. “So, we think that’s going to make for an even more pleasant experience.”

The business changes follow Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent suspension of all local-government coronavirus emergency orders. Also, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance that fully vaccinated people do not necessarily need to wear masks outdoors and indoors. Just over one-third of Floridians are fully vaccinated.

SeaWorld Orlando responded by saying face coverings will no longer be required for fully vaccinated guests at its properties, while adding that guests won’t be required to provide proof of vaccination.

With the changes, Disney’s Chapek said he anticipates “an immediate increase in the number of folks that we’re able to admit into our parks through our reservation systems that we recently implemented.”

The state’s 2021 first quarter numbers were bolstered by 25.56 million travelers from other parts of the United States, which has been the primary target of Visit Florida marketing since last summer. The domestic traveler number was 5.3 percent below the first quarter of 2020.

Visit Florida first targeted East Coast regions easily drivable to Florida and this year started expanding its marketing efforts to California, Oregon and Washington.

A budget approved April 30 by state lawmakers would provide $50 million to Visit Florida for the fiscal year that will start July 1 --- the same as in the current year --- and pump an additional $25 million into the agency from federal stimulus money to “conduct activities that support and fund Florida's tourism industry and its recovery from COVID-19 through promotion and marketing activities, services, functions, and programs.” The budget has not gone to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Meanwhile, Canadian travel for the first quarter was down 97.2 percent, with Florida attracting 34,000 Canadians during the period, and international tourism was down 74.4 percent. The state drew an estimated 564,000 overseas visitors the first three months of the year, with many nations still imposing border-screening and other travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said in a statement Monday that the overall first-quarter numbers indicate a “better recovery than expected.”

“Visit Florida’s efforts have been crucial for the gains we have achieved in our economic recovery, and the state’s increased investment in Visit Florida this coming fiscal year will ensure we can continue delivering results for every sector of our tourism industry,” Young said.

DeSantis has repeatedly argued the state’s economy could be doing better if the CDC would allow cruise ships to start operating without requirements for passengers and crew. The state has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over cruise-ship restrictions.

DeSantis has also signed into law a measure (SB 2006) that bans governments and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccination “passports.”

Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank Del Rio recently told investors that the world’s third largest cruise line could restart operations outside of Florida waters, as it plans to require proof of vaccinations for all passengers and crew through at least Oct. 31.

DeSantis on Thursday dismissed Miami-headquartered Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates out of Port Canaveral, Port Miami and Tampa, as “not one of the big ones.”

Carnival, hoping to restart operations out of Miami on July 4, has not announced a vaccination requirement for its ships. Royal Caribbean on its website said that all guests 18 and older, along with all crew, will be required to submit proof of vaccination no later than boarding day.