TALLAHASSEE — After offending thousands of Canadians, causing havoc in local tourism offices and possibly running afoul of the Geneva Convention, Florida lawmakers completed a speedy about-face Tuesday, officially repealing a law requiring foreign tourists to get an International Driving Permit.
With a stroke of Gov. Rick Scott's pen, Canadians and other international tourists will no longer have to obtain a special permit before they are allowed to drive in Florida. A little-noticed law passed last year and signed by Scott had created the new requirement.
"We love international visitors, and we want to do everything possible to ensure their stay here is an enjoyable one," Scott said before signing HB 7059, the repeal bill. "Florida is committed to being the No. 1 tourist destination in the world."
It is the first bill Scott has signed this year.
Lawmakers originally pushed for the International Driving Permit requirement after concern that some foreigners had licenses that were not written in English. The lawmakers did not foresee all the problems that would ensue when the law went into effect on Jan. 1.
After Canadian reporters highlighted the new requirement, frustrated snowbirds from Toronto and Quebec began calling lawmakers and scrambling to get the new permit, which costs about $25 in Canada and is valid for a maximum of one year.
Ian Jack, director of Government Relations for the Canada Automobile Association, said that Canadians were "caught unawares" by the law change and that the rapid repeal would help smooth relations between Canada and the United States.
"Friendships don't always run completely smoothly," he said. "We all have our hiccups in our friendships. The question is, do we overcome them? True friends always do, and I think that's what has happened here."
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said in February that it would not enforce the law because it likely violated an international treaty of the Geneva Convention. But Canadian officials urged residents to go to AAA or another official organization to get the new permit anyway, to be safe while the law was on the books.
The number of Canadian tourists visiting Florida each year has increased from 1.2 million in 2002 to 3.6 million in 2012, making Canada far and away the top market for Florida's international tourism efforts.
More than 10 million visitors came to Florida from other countries last year, and Scott said HB 7059 would help them feel more welcome in the Sunshine State.
"We want everybody to come to our state," he said after addressing an international trade conference hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "More international visitors and visitors from other states (mean) we'll have more jobs."
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