TALLAHASSEE - Florida tourism leaders continue to fret over a lag in international visitors as the industry anticipates tourism numbers for the final three months of 2022.
While Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency, boasts that Florida is the top U.S. destination for overseas travelers based on market share, numbers of international visitors to the state and nation remain far below pre-pandemic totals.
Visit Florida president and CEO Dana Young last week expressed concerns that global inflation and lengthy visa-processing times could affect the final numbers for 2022 and tourism in 2023.
“The wait time to get an interview for a visa in Mexico City is 693 days. In Lima, Peru, it is 831 days,” Young told members of the Visit Florida Executive Committee. “This is absolutely ridiculous, and it is impacting our international visitation.”
The U.S. Travel Association reported that steps taken by the U.S. Department of State to reduce visitor visa wait times have made “substantive progress,” with the global average below 150 days for the first time since 2021.
In a statement posted online, the U.S. Department of State said the delay stems from a combination of “pent-up demand” for visas, as countries have lifted COVID-19 restrictions, mixed with regular seasonal demand.
But, as Young noted, wait times in a number of nations remain above the average, even amid steps such as embassies and consulates opening on Saturdays for visa processing and increased hiring of U.S. Foreign Service employees to help with visa paperwork.
India on Jan. 19 had a wait period of 577 days, down from 999 days in mid-December.
“Wait times are still excessively high despite marked improvements in countries like India,” U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement. “While we appreciate (the Department of) State’s efforts, much work remains to bring interview wait times down to an acceptable level.”
Young said Florida’s international tourism numbers also face a “negative impact” because of the Biden administration extending until April 8 a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for foreign air travelers coming into the United States. The requirement had been slated to end Jan. 8.
Florida also is working to recapture business travel and meetings, as competition builds, Young said.
“The increase in competition from other global destinations that were not marketing during the pandemic is something that we’re watching,” Young said.
When third-quarter tourism numbers were released in November, the estimated 32.645 million travelers into Florida represented an 8% increase from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic largely shut down the crucial tourism industry. Of that, domestic travelers were up 11.4%, while overseas visitors were down 30%.
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The U.S. Travel Association estimated that international travel to the U.S. was 34% below pre-pandemic levels.
Visit Florida, which has increased its marketing to offset negative media reports about issues such as hurricanes, red tide and COVID-19, received $50 million in state funding this year. It is seeking $100 million next fiscal year, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Young said Visit Florida is engaged in “phase 2″ of its response to Hurricane Ian. The Category 4 hurricane made landfall Sept. 28 in Southwest Florida and caused widespread damage as it crossed the state.
“We launched phase 1 on Oct. 8. This was a rapid response focused on the nonimpacted areas of the state to show that Florida was still open for business,” Young said. “We deployed video crews all over the state to nonimpacted areas so that they could shoot live, date-stamp footage of people enjoying the Florida sunshine. This was to combat the $165 million of negative earned media that we received over about a three-week period and dispel the misperception that Florida as a whole state was destroyed.”
Fourth-quarter and overall 2022 tourism numbers are expected to be released in mid-February.
By Jim Turner