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International visitors are returning to Florida, leading to a tourism surge

People under a tiki umbrella and leaning against a railing to watch a sunset
Carl Lisciandrello
WUSF Public Media
U.S. travelers to Florida during the third quarter of this year easily exceeded numbers from the same period in 2020, as COVID-19 vaccinations were widely available and cruise ships were back on the seas.

Visit Florida reported the positive outlook as more people become vaccinated from the coronavirus and cruise ships resume sailing.

U.S. travelers to Florida during the third quarter of this year easily exceeded numbers from the same period in 2020, as COVID-19 vaccinations were widely available and cruise ships were back on the seas.

More important for the state’s tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida, the estimated total of 32.517 million tourists between July 1 and Sept. 30 bested — by just over 0.3% — the overall number of visitors in the third quarter of 2019 before the pandemic began.

The numbers were released Monday as the agency seeks another $50 million in state funding in next year’s budget, hopes lawmakers will extend its life beyond 2023 and anticipates getting a boost from the return of international travelers as the federal government this month reopened borders to visitors.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young has said international visitors are vital to the state’s economy because they tend to spend more time and money than domestic travelers.

“I'm not a betting woman and I don't make a lot of predictions, but I will tell you that I feel very, very good about our position internationally when those borders open,” Young told state lawmakers on Oct. 11. “We are going to see a lot of Brits and Germans and Canadians and Mexicans and Colombians and Brazilians coming to our state and spending money, starting in November.”

Young also recently met with travel agents, tour operators and airline representatives in London.

Under the federal plan, non-citizens visiting the United States have to show proof of vaccination and negative COVID-19 tests taken within three days of departure.

With marketing focused primarily across the U.S., Visit Florida recorded an estimated 91.484 million visitors in the first nine months of 2021, up from 60.213 million in the first nine months of 2020, which included the massive global closures due to the pandemic. The vast majority of this year’s tourists, 88.44 million, have come from other parts of the U.S.

The third-quarter numbers also marked the return of the cruise industry in July and August and reflected increased attendance at the state’s theme parks, which a year ago were just reopening from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disney Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said in a company earnings call last Wednesday that revenue from parks and accompanying business units — including cruise operations — for the second half of 2021 is up 26%, with attendance up across the board.

The company didn’t post attendance numbers overall or for individual parks.

A day earlier, SeaWorld Entertainment reported its quarterly attendance was 7.2 million, an increase of 5.7 million guests from the same period of 2020. However, the number was down by 900,000, or 11%, from the third quarter of 2019.

In an earnings call on Oct. 28, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said Universal Orlando — a division of Comcast’s NBCUniversal — had “the most profitable quarter in its history despite having virtually no international guests due to COVID-related travel restraints.”

For Visit Florida, the third-quarter numbers were dominated by domestic travelers, accounting for 31.205 million tourists, a 55.3% jump from the third quarter of 2020. Overall, including international tourists, the third-quarter numbers were up 60.4% from the third quarter of 2020.

The state recorded 1.226 million overseas visitors in the third quarter, up from 1.115 million in the second quarter and 567,000 in the first quarter. Canadians accounted for 85,000 third-quarter visitors, up from 15,000 in the second quarter and 34,000 in the first quarter.

In 2019, Florida drew 2.65 million overseas travelers in the third quarter and 10.9 million for the year. Canadians in 2019 accounted for 3.62 million tourists, of which 502,000 were in the third quarter.

After a decade of year-after-year growth, Florida in 2019 totaled 131.42 million visitors. After nine months in 2019, the state had attracted 100.6 million tourists, nearly 10 percent more than in the current year.

Monday’s quarterly report came as Visit Florida hopes to draw support from the Legislature to extend its termination date beyond Oct. 1, 2023. A proposal in the Senate (SB 434) would keep the agency operating until Oct. 1, 2031. A similar measure in the House (HB 489) offers an extension to Oct. 1, 2028.

Visit Florida received $80 million from the Legislature for the current year, which included $50 million in state money and $30 million from federal stimulus programs.