TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s tourism-marketing agency will ask lawmakers to maintain increased funding and extend its life, as the state ramps up efforts to attract international visitors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Visit Florida Chairman Danny Gaekwad told members of the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors on Wednesday that Visit Florida will request at least $75 million for tourism marketing during the upcoming legislative session and will ask lawmakers to extend an Oct. 1, 2023, “sunset” date for the agency.
“It is time to get a meaningful reauthorization so we can focus on the important work we need to do,” Gaekwad said during an Enterprise Florida meeting at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
Gaekwad, owner of MGM Hotels, LLC, serves on the boards of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.
The 2022 legislative session begins Jan. 11.
For the current fiscal year, which started July 1, lawmakers approved $50 million in state money for tourism marketing, the same as in fiscal year 2020-2021. An additional $25 million came through federal stimulus programs.
Gaekwad said $75 million in the upcoming 2022-2023 fiscal year would allow the agency to continue “the momentum we have created” in reviving the state’s tourism numbers after the industry sustained heavy losses early in the pandemic.
The sunset date issue comes after lawmakers in 2020 extended authorization for Visit Florida through Oct. 1, 2023. Without such an extension, the agency would have been eliminated last year.
Visit Florida has been a target of House leaders in recent years, drawing fire for past spending that included $1 million for rapper Pitbull to market the state, $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team. House leaders also have questioned the need to spend tax dollars on marketing a state filled with tourist attractions.
But backers of the agency argued, in part, that it has helped market the state through times of negative media coverage about issues such as hurricanes, red tide and algae and diseases such as Zika and COVID-19.
The legislative requests for money and an extended sunset date will be pursued as Visit Florida ups its focus on international travelers. Those efforts were already underway before the White House on Sept. 20 announced it will ease restrictions on international visitors, including people from the United Kingdom and the European Union, in November.
Under the plan, non-citizens visiting the United States will have to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure. The change is hoped to spur end-of-year holiday travel.
Similar travel restrictions have already been lifted by many European officials.
Visit Florida officials have been planning trips to Mexico and England, with the timing dependent on the status of United Kingdom border-crossing requirements.
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“Those trips are to further cement our existing relationships with our in-country trade and to build on some new strategic relationships with airlines and other trade partnerships in those countries,” Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young told members of the Visit Florida board’s Executive Committee in May.
Gaekwad said Wednesday that Young is in London on behalf of the agency.
“We are 12 months ahead of anybody else in the world,” Gaekwad said of the state’s travel efforts.
Florida this year has seen a restoration of its domestic tourism numbers. But international figures continue to suffer.
An estimated 15,000 Canadian visitors and 1.115 million overseas travelers came to Florida in the second quarter of 2021. Two years ago, Florida drew 930,000 Canadians and 2.646 million overseas travelers in the second quarter.
— By Jim Turner