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REVVING THE ECONOMY'S ENGINE // Tourism weathers the storms

Despite hurricanes, high gas prices and Red Tide, tourists flocked to Florida in record numbers in 2005, but the growth should slow down this year, officials said Monday.

Preliminary figures show 85.8-million people came to the Sunshine State last year, an increase of 6-million, or 7.6 percent, over 2004, said Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency.

The state proved "amazingly resilient" to storms and other obstacles last year, said Bud Nocera, chief executive of Visit Florida.

Still, visitor numbers grew less than 1 percent for October through December after year-to-year quarterly increases of 7.5 to 10.8 percent earlier in the year. That may have been caused by Hurricane Wilma's late-October tear through South Florida, officials said.

Interviews with potential tourists late last year showed lingering concerns over visiting the state during hurricane-prone summer and fall months, Nocera said.

As a result, the agency set growth projections for this year to a more modest 3.2 percent, he said.

"There seems to be, from the last two hurricane seasons, growing concerns out there," Nocera said. "We'll have growth, but it may not be as good."

Last year's numbers were bolstered by visitors who weren't here by choice: the thousands of people forced to flee New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and work crews that stayed in hotels and motels after one of the four storms that battered Florida last year.

Domestic tourists continued to make up the lion's share of visitors, some 79-million, or 92 percent of the total.

As usual, Canadians made up the largest segment of international visitors, up 8.2 percent to 2.1-million last year.

The United Kingdom, Germany and Latin America followed as major tourist markets for the state.

A delegation including representatives from Orlando, Miami, Palm Beach and Walt Disney World will go to China in April to promote the Sunshine State.

"The numbers show it's an emerging large market," said Vanessa Welter, a Visit Florida spokeswoman.

The agency doesn't have figures on how many Chinese now visit the state. Florida officials made a push for years to sell the state to Japanese tourists. In 2004, just 82,000 visitors came from Japan, putting the nation No. 10 behind France and Italy as a tourist generator.

On Monday, Visit Florida marked its 10th year as the state's tourism marketing arm. The industry employs 944,500 workers with a combined salary of $15.4-billion, officials said.

"Tourism is the engine that drives the economy of this state," said Thom Stork, chief executive of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and chairman of Visit Florida's board. "These are good jobs. They're family-supporting jobs."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Richard Tharpe, 32, of Paris, Tenn., checks out the sights from high atop the Pier on Monday afternoon. Tharpe, who considers himself a tourist, was in town for a few days to visit his mother in St. Petersburg. "It's great. I like it," he said of the city. Tharpe made the Pier his first stop as a tourist and hopes to see more of the city. ist stop.

FLORIDA'S CLIMBING TOURISM

After slipping the year of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of visitors to Florida has steadily climbed the last four years.

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