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Florida tourism takes its hits

Sometimes it's the big picture stuff, like a nasty hurricane season or $4-a-gallon gas, that makes Florida's tourism industry fret.

Sometimes it's the little stuff, like the Lake County Welcome Center's decision to stop serving free orange juice to save $6,000.

Florida tourism, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect these days. Where to start?

• The global recession continues to depress the tourism industry here. After several years of steady annual increases, the number of visitors coming to Florida fell in 2008 as compared to the previous year. And estimates of visitors to Florida for the fourth quarter of 2008 show an estimated 16.6 million people visited the Sunshine State, a dramatic decline of 13.6 percent. It seems doubtful there's been an uptick so far this year.

• State and county budgets, already in shambles, call for additional cuts to the marketing dollars devoted to tourism promotion — just when many feel a louder voice is needed. Pinellas County's tourism promotion department, for example, faces a $3.5 million budget cut for the coming year that may halt marketing efforts tied to the Tampa Bay Rays, the St. Petersburg Grand Prix and other high-profile sports events.

• Economic development groups acknowledge tourism's big-buck contribution to the state economy. But increasingly they focus their efforts and financial resources on encouraging and attracting high-tech-style industries to try and raise the wage level of jobs in the state. Tourism, heavy on work for maids and waiters, tends to drag down wage levels.

• The thawing of relations with Cuba will spell economic opportunity for some Florida businesses. But some in the state's tourism industry view a new and exotic Caribbean location so close to Florida as another source of competition to take tourist dollars away from here.

• In Tallahassee, new state legislation would open near-shore oil and gas drilling off Florida's coasts. If there's one issue Florida's coastal tourism industry gets motivated to fight, it's drilling within visual sight — and within strike of an oil spill — of Florida's beaches. The House has okayed an oil drilling bill but the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist are resisting.

• Mutter words like "swine flu" or "pandemic" and tourist officials swoon. It's early and the odds are the early swine flu hysteria will dissipate. As of Wednesday, there were no known cases of swine flu in Florida. But clearly Orlando — with its intense concentration of airplanes delivering visitors from all over — is statistically ripe for a victim or two. At least one prominent European official already has cautioned against unnecessary travel to the United States. All this could aggravate an already struggling tourism year in the Sunshine State.

Which brings us back to the free orange juice. The slow economy in Lake County, home to such towns as Leesburg and Mount Dora, northwest of Orlando, forced the decision to stop serving free juice at the county's local welcome center.

The good news? The five big welcome centers in the state overseen by the state's Visit Florida tourism agency still offer a "cup of citrus" to visitors, says spokeswoman Dia Kuykendall. It's been a tradition now for 60 years.

Bottoms up.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com

Florida tourism takes its hits 04/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 8:16pm]

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