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Tourism outlook not all sunny

Waning consumer confidence, competition from other destinations and hurricane fears spell trouble for Florida's tourist industry, executives of the state's tourism marketing arm said Wednesday.

"A two-word summary: danger ahead,'' said Barry Pitegoff, vice president of research for Visit Florida, at a gathering of tourism business officials at the Saddlebrook Resort. "If you look ... at the number of visitors, we're in a slightly precarious situation.''

The agency released estimates Monday that 66.8-million visitors came to Florida in the first nine months of the year, down 0.9 percent from the same period in 2005.

Unless the trend turns around, Florida is headed for its first year-to-year decline since 2001. Visit Florida had projected a 3.2 percent increase for 2006.

The news isn't all bad. Hotel room rates are up strongly and parts of the state, such as South Florida, continue to attract more tourists, said Visit Florida chief executive Bud Nocera.

Through September, nearly 4.19-million overnight visitors came to Pinellas County, up 0.7 percent from last year.

Still, Nocera said he's concerned about the decline in visitors, in part because there's no silver bullet to reverse it.

"You cannot point to any one particular reason,'' he said. "It's things like the economic confidence level of Americans in the future, competition in the marketplace, the price of gasoline.''

Punishing hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 scared off some potential visitors this year, he said. Fifty-seven percent of Americans surveyed for Visit Florida in March agreed that Florida is "a fine place'' for a summer vacation. In October 2004, more than 70 percent agreed.

Pitegoff cited a couple of other potentially troublesome trends. Repeat visitors are coming back less frequently, he said. The average time between trips is about 18 months, about twice as long as a few years ago.

Most of the visitor growth in the last six years was from higher income people. The average Florida visitor's household income was nearly $80,000 in 2005.

But the number of visitors earning less than the national median income appears to be declining. One reason: sharply higher prices for rooms on the beach as pricey condos replace small mom and pop hotels.

"How do we plan to measure if we're pricing ourselves out of the market?'' asked Danielle Courtenay of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Wednesday was the first workday for Visit Florida's annual gathering with business partners to develop the coming year's marketing plan.

Visit Florida officials renewed their call for more state money to promote tourism. The agency received $24.6-million in public money this year.

That's less than at least four other states, said chief marketing officer Dale Brill. Las Vegas is spending $48-million on television ads alone, he said.

Competition is also increasing from lesser-known destinations. North Carolina has stepped up advertising beach and mountain vacations in such Florida-friendly markets as Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Ala., and Philadelphia, said Nocera.

"Florida's in an environment competing with every state in the union,'' he said. "It wasn't that way 15 or 20 years ago."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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