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Trigaux: How long can Florida's record-breaking tourism pace continue?

Florida racked up yet another record quarter in tourism growth, a remarkable accomplishment that still must beg the inevitable question: How long can it last?

At some point, the record will falter and the 25.8 million tourists who came to this state in the second quarter — and the 54.1 million who came in the first half of this year — will dip slightly. Egos will be hurt. Hand-wringing may ensue. Fingers will point. All true, even though tourism numbers will still be high.

But it's a Big World out there with many factors influencing the Florida market, no matter how indirectly. Despite Florida's major commitment of marketing dollars and some very clever tourism promotions by state and Tampa Bay area tourism officials, setting new records cannot go on forever.

Trends for and against tourism growth here abound. The strong U.S. dollar makes it more expensive for foreign visitors to come and spend their money here. The Brazilian economy, once the Latin American juggernaut, is struggling, which should inevitably slow the vast flow of Brazilian tourists here.

There's even a theory, possibly farfetched, that the opening of Cuba will siphon away a significant portion of Florida tourists in search of something new to see and do.

If Congress officially ends the 55-year trade embargo, the Financial Times writes this week, "such a move would be a major boon to the Cuban economy, not least by unleashing a torrent of big-spending American tourists on the island, which has largely been starved of such arrivals for more than half a century."

The Orlando Sentinel explored this same issue this week, speaking to Cuban-born George Aguel, president and CEO of the Visit Orlando tourism association, who hasn't been to Cuba since his family left when he was a child. While he's not worried about Cuba's potential to lure tourists from Central Florida, he's not sure about the impact on the rest of the state.

"I think the surge would come from people who have an interest in seeing Cuba as it is today," Aguel told the Sentinel. He added, like before the embargo, it's likely that couples who enjoy the nightlife and "hanging out with mojitos on the beach" will flock to Cuba.

"Thankfully, that is not our market," Aguel said. "We are the No. 1 family destination, and I don't see any real form of impact for us. But I can't attest to that for other parts of Florida."

Look out, Key West. Stay alert, Gulf Coast beach towns.

Not all trends are against Florida. Yet another scenario portrays Florida as a safe, warm weather destination for Europeans seeking alternatives to traditional vacation spots in the Mediterranean or northern Africa that are now less stable or, in some cases, clearly dangerous.

Experts say many Europeans are changing their beach vacation plans as a result of terror attacks in Tunisia and the Greek economic crisis, and those vacation plans could include Florida.

The most recent figures show European visitation to the state was up 6 percent from 2013 to 2014. About 4 million Europeans visited, according to the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida.

"Safety is always a concern to international travelers," Paul Phipps, Visit Florida's marketing director, told the Associated Press. "We always rank very high in surveys when we ask visitors if they feel safe here."

Finally, let's not forget the theme park wars in Orlando that are again gathering momentum. After the 17 percent bump last year in attendance at Universal Orlando, thanks to the ongoing excitement over the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, Disney last week announced plans for Star Wars and Toy Story attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. An Avatar attraction also is coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom park.

That should pretty much guarantee another surge in visitors to the state — once such popular additions are built and opened. Until then, the challenge to set records gets tougher.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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