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Florida tourism improves in early 2021, but stills struggles

The state drew 26.16 million visitors from Jan. 1 to March 31, down from 30.4 million tourists during the first quarter of 2020.
Beach goers enjoy Pier 60 and the surf along Clearwater Beach Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Florida and its beaches have become a top destination during a pandemic spring break.
Beach goers enjoy Pier 60 and the surf along Clearwater Beach Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Florida and its beaches have become a top destination during a pandemic spring break. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published May 17
Updated May 17

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s tourism industry saw improvement during the first three months of 2021, but the number of visitors was still down 14 percent from a year earlier as the state continued to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Travel-industry officials can envision bluer economic skies ahead as businesses scale back mask requirements and other social-distancing rules imposed to combat the virus that has killed more than 36,000 Floridians.

Florida drew 26.16 million visitors from Jan. 1 to March 31, down from 30.4 million tourists during the first quarter of 2020, according to numbers posted late Friday by the state tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida. The pandemic began hammering the state’s economy in March 2020, amid a period that includes tourist draws such as spring break and baseball spring training.

The number of tourists fell to 9.92 million in the second quarter of 2020, a 69.4 percent drop from the prior year, before increasing to 20.33 million in the third quarter and 19.1 million for the fourth quarter.

The new estimates by Visit Florida included a revision of the overall numbers for 2020 that indicates the pandemic was worse on the leisure and hospitality industry than previously projected.

The agency in March estimated Florida had 86.71 million visitors in 2020. With the revision,  Florida’s 2020 total was set at 79.75 million, a 39.3 percent drop from 2019.

The 2020 figures were the lowest in a decade for a state that relies heavily on tourism to fuel its economy. Until the pandemic, Florida posted nine consecutive years of increased tourism numbers, topped by 131.4 million travelers in 2019.

The new numbers come as the state and federal governments battle in court over the idled cruise-ship industry and as major Orlando theme parks and other businesses have changed mask-wearing rules.

Disney, which has increased the number of visitors allowed into its parks, and Universal now allow visitors to remove masks when in outdoor common areas, such as Main Street U.S.A. of the Magic Kingdom.

The business changes follow Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent suspension of all local-government coronavirus emergency orders. Also, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance that fully vaccinated people do not necessarily need to wear masks outdoors and indoors. Just over one-third of Floridians are fully vaccinated.

SeaWorld Orlando responded by saying face coverings will no longer be required for fully vaccinated guests at its properties, while adding that guests won’t be required to provide proof of vaccination.

With the changes, Disney’s Chapek said he anticipates “an immediate increase in the number of folks that we’re able to admit into our parks through our reservation systems that we recently implemented.”

The state’s 2021 first quarter numbers were bolstered by 25.56 million travelers from other parts of the United States, which has been the primary target of Visit Florida marketing since last summer. The domestic traveler number was 5.3 percent below the first quarter of 2020.

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Visit Florida first targeted East Coast regions easily drivable to Florida and this year started expanding its marketing efforts to California, Oregon and Washington.

Meanwhile, Canadian travel for the first quarter was down 74.4 percent, with Florida attracting 564,000 Canadians during the period, and international travel was down 97.2 percent. The state drew an estimated 34,000 overseas travelers the first three months of the year, with many nations still imposing border-screening and other travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said in a statement Monday that the overall first-quarter numbers indicate a “better recovery than expected.”

DeSantis has repeatedly argued the state’s economy could be doing better if the CDC would allow cruise ships to start operating without requirements for passengers and crew. The state has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over cruise-ship restrictions.

DeSantis has also signed into law a measure (SB 2006) that bans governments and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccination “passports.”