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If Florida's recovery is so bland, why is tourism setting records?

Florida and Tampa Bay has invested in ads up North, such as this one in New York, selling the vision of a sunny refuge.

Photo courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

Florida and Tampa Bay has invested in ads up North, such as this one in New York, selling the vision of a sunny refuge.

As economic rebounds go, Florida's is no barnburner. • "This economic expansion has indeed lived down to our modest expectations," Wells Fargo economists noted in their latest monthly outlook on the nation's recovery. • So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see headlines like "Best tourism month ever" on Wednesday's front page of the Tampa Bay Times or the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's recent "South Florida breaking tourism records." • What gives? You'd think a warm winter up North and high gas prices would have discouraged job-wary tourists from trekking to Florida. • On the contrary.

"In a lot of ways, this was pent-up demand," suggests Chris Thompson, CEO of Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing organization. "People got sick and tired of being sick and tired."

The stars seem to be aligning for Florida's tourism industry. It's leading the state in creating new jobs since unemployment peaked in early 2010. Interviews with Thompson, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism agency CEO D.T. Minich and Tampa Bay & Co. CEO Kelly Miller highlighted what's contributing to the tourism boom:

5. Healthy advertising budgets kept the lure of Florida and Tampa Bay front and center with some key domestic feeder markets — notably the New York City and Chicago metro areas — as well as the Canadian, European and Latin American markets.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, for example, for the first time blitzed both New York and Chicago at the same time with TV and radio ads, while "wrapping" exteriors of buses and trains with beach messages.

Tampa Bay is also gearing up for this month's brand-new, twice-weekly direct flights to and from Tampa International to Zurich, Switzerland, on Edelweiss Air. Zurich's central location makes it within a two-hour flight of 40 other European cities.

4. More tourists are showing up in Florida from farther west in the United States these days. Why? Tourist officials note more people in markets like Kansas City and Colorado are opting to avoid their typical fun-in-the-sun choice — Mexico — because of the sharp increase in violence.

Cruise vacations also remain popular as safe holidays, which boosts the number of tourists embarking on ships at Tampa's port.

3. Higher gas prices this winter, peaking near $4 a gallon in Florida, are not a big factor in tourist circles. People who want to take a vacation by car will still do so and simply tighten their budgets in other ways to cover any additional expense in fuel. Plus, most tourists driving to destinations in Florida tend to be Florida residents and are not driving that far from home.

2. Meetings and conventions, almost shunned by businesses in the recession, are rebounding. That's good news for Tampa's convention center. One of the biggest meetings of all — the Republican National Convention — comes to Tampa in late August.

1. Even in the recession, Florida's tourism industry invested in new things to do and popular additions to theme parks. From the 2010 opening in Orlando of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the 2011 debut of Legoland in Winter Haven to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Cheetah Hunt thrill ride, the state keeps tempting tourists to visit again and again.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

If Florida's recovery is so bland, why is tourism setting records? 05/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 11:32pm]
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