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Tourist industry pitches Florida to the locals as recession puts brakes on travel

TAMPA — With nervous consumers looking for bargains, local tourist businesses are setting their sights on Florida residents this summer.

"People want to travel, but with less expense," Gregg Laskowski, a spokesman for AAA Auto Club South, told representatives from local hotels and attractions Thursday. "They want to stay closer to home."

Hotels, airlines and other travel-related companies nationwide have taken big hits recently, mostly from corporate frugality in the recession. The travel industry hopes a decent summer vacation season will stop the slide.

"We have to do whatever we can to rebuild confidence to travel to (places) close to you," said Mark Bonn, a Florida State hospitality professor and tourism researcher. "People need to think it's okay to take these trips and feel good about it."

A discount card for food and lodging deals for Floridians, called the Florida Backyard Card, will be unveiled next week by Gov. Charlie Crist and trade groups, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

AAA Auto Club South — with travel agencies in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee — will promote Tampa Bay attractions in its members magazine.

Bonn released some grim statistics for Hillsborough tourism last year. An estimated 16.1 million visitors came to the county, down 4.2 percent from 2007. They spent $2.73 billion, a 14 percent decline.

The number of overnight visitors rose 1 percent to 4.61 million. But on average, their stay was a half-day shorter at 3.6 days.

AAA reported slight declines last year in Florida travel for all five big travel holidays, from Memorial Day weekend through Christmas. "We can't see anything reversing that trend" for this year, Laskowski said.

Tourist industry pitches Florida to the locals as recession puts brakes on travel 03/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 12:11am]

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