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State tourism slumps in December

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Florida tourism slumped in December after world headlines about slayings of foreign visitors, and state officials said Friday the state needs to pour money into advertising.

"This downward trend strongly suggests that the Legislature should reconsider the release of an additional $2-million," said Gov. Lawton Chiles.

After a 1.3 percent increase in visitors in November, lawmakers turned down the governor's request for $2-million for advertising to fight bad publicity about the tourist slayings.

If legislators grant the request, that amount could be matched by industry to pay for ads between now and July 1, said Commerce Secretary Charles Dusseau.

Without lawmakers' help, Florida's Division of Tourism has no money to run more ads until a new fiscal year starts July 1, Dusseau said.

That's in the face of vigorous promotion by competing "sun" destinations such as Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Mexico will spend $15-million this year on U.S. advertising, three times what Florida spends, Dusseau told a news conference.

Florida counted 41-million visitors for all of 1993, up 1.2 percent from the year before, but visitors in December _ traditionally a major month for family vacationers _ fell 7.6 percent to 3.2-million, he said.

Many observers have questioned the reliability of the state's tourism estimates, which, for one thing, also reflect millions of tourists drawn to the state only to get on a cruise ship destined for the Caribbean.

But other measures of December tourist traffic across the state also were down. The hotel occupancy rate in metropolitan Orlando, including the Walt Disney World corridor, was 58.3 percent, down from 61.3 percent in the same month in 1992, according to the Central Florida Hotel & Motel Association.

Traffic at Orlando International Airport was down 2 percent.

The number of visitors to Pinellas County was down 1.8 percent in December, and hotel occupancy rates slipped 1 percentage point to 53.5 percent, according to Tampa-based Research Data Services Inc.

While passenger traffic at Tampa International Airport was up 2 percent in December, officials credit that to Tampa Bay residents attracted to Continental Airlines new low fare structure.

The $31-billion tourism industry employing more than 600,000 Floridians reeled after the September slaying of a British visitor at a northern Florida highway rest stop. Nine tourists had been killed since October 1992, including a German tourist fatally shot one week earlier in Miami.

"We're fighting negative images," Dusseau said, adding that competition, European economic problems and unfavorable currency exchange rates also caused potential Florida travelers to go elsewhere or stay home.

"I think the crime certainly has had an impact internationally, and more than we expected on the domestic market," said John Evans, spokesman for the Florida Tourism Association.

Evans, whose organization represents hotels, restaurants and other tourist businesses, said the figures would be worse if a severe winter hadn't chased many Northerners to the beaches.

_ Staff Writer Mark Albright contributed to this report.