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A record 60 million-plus tourists have visited Florida so far in 2017

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks about tourism numbers during a news conference at the Florida Aquarium Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 in Tampa.
Published Aug. 16, 2017

TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott used the backdrop of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa Tuesday to announce that a record-breaking 60.7 million tourists have visited the state in the first half of the year.

The relentless uptick in travelers — a 4.1 percent increase over the first six months in 2016 — includes 53.2 million domestic visitors, 5.3 million overseas tourists and 2.2 million Canadians.

"I worked hard this session to continue to fund Visit Florida, and it's paying off," Scott said. "Our goal is to have 120 million visitors this year."

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That would be another record-breaking benchmark. In 2016, Florida drew a record 112 million visitors.

But the continued surge in tourism comes with a big asterisk: all of the increase is coming from domestic travel. Florida saw a small drop in tourists from Canada, at 1 percent, and international, at 0.4 percent, from the same period last year.

During a presentation at the Tampa International Airport in July, Visit Tampa Bay listed the presidency of Donald Trump, the Florida Legislature's battle over tourism funding and the strength of the dollar as "disruptions" for the Florida tourism industry — particularly in drawing international visitors.

Historically, snowbirds, often Canadians escaping the cold winters, have been an essential segment of the market. To address the market share loss, Visit Florida is planning what it calls a Canada Takeover in late October to reestablish relationships and increase marketing opportunities. Its week-long marketing push will center around Toronto's Union Station and Yonge-Dundas Square by using social media and digital billboards to generate exposure for the state. The organizations also plans to promote a new "Par Program" that allows many Florida businesses to offer Canadians an equal currency exchange rate for a limited time.

Domestic travelers are also vital for maintaining growth. The key markets for Visit Florida include New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

While not tracked by Visit Florida, in-state travelers represent another tourism demographic. Visit Tampa Bay points to Orlando, Miami, Naples-Fort Myers and Jacksonville as the leading in-state markets.

Despite disagreements about transparency and spending habits within the tourism industry, the state Legislature eventually voted to fully fund Visit Florida's $76 million budget. That was a key point drilled by Scott, who has publicly disapproved of cuts to the tourism organization. He initially pushed an increase in funding to $100 million.

To broker a deal, however, lawmakers passed broad restrictions on contracts, staff salaries, travel and the consumption of food and drinks at events.

Scott said Visit Florida, which relies on tax dollars to promote the state to visitors worldwide, will operate with transparency and accountability.

Ken Lawson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, mirrored the governor's comments.

"Every dollar is going to sound marketing programs, so people from across the country and around the world will continue to visit the Florida sunshine," he said.

However, the fate of the organization's next budget is unknown.

The tourism crackdown has had a ripple effect. Several key leaders have resigned, including Bill Lupfer, former president and CEO of Florida Attractions Association who left earlier this month.

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Many county tourism organizations such as Visit Tampa Bay and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau have severed ties with Visit Florida, which provides co-op advertising partnerships around the state.

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Regardless of the political clash, the numbers indicate tourism remains a huge economic engine for the state. For every dollar the state invests in Visit Florida, $3.20 in tax revenue is generated, according to Visit Florida.

In its most recent economic impact study, Visit Florida estimated tourists spend about $108.8 billion a year, generating $11.3 billion in state and local taxes, and supporting 1.4 million in jobs. On any given day, an average of 2.2 million visitors come to Florida and spend $300 million per day on average, the study said.

"We are not backing down at all," said Lawson. "We are going to work every day to use our money wisely, be transparent, be aggressive, to make sure 120 million tourists come to Florida."

Contact Tierra Smith at tsmith@ tampabay.com or (414) 702-5006. Follow @bytierrasmith.

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