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  1. Florida Politics

Florida broke record in 2014 with 97.3 million tourists

TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott stopped by Tampa International Airport on Monday to announce that Florida's tourism industry set a record in 2014.

The state attracted 97.3 million visitors, and the Tampa Bay region certainly did its share of the work.

On the Pinellas side of the bay, the county set its own record with 5.9 million tourists spending the night in 2014.

In Hillsborough, hotels reached 70 percent occupancy for the first time in county history and generated a record $540 million in gross revenue.

Scott came to Tampa to tout the economic benefits of tourism: A record 1.14 million Floridians were employed in jobs related to the industry in 2014. That was a 4 percent increase from 2013.

"You always think, 'Does it really impact jobs?' " Scott said. "It absolutely impacts jobs. There's jobs all over the state because people are coming here or tourists are buying homes and moving their business here."

But tourism jobs aren't always high-paying jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality sector paid an average wage of $14.15 an hour over an average work week of 26.3 hours, according to the latest figures from January.

Visit St. Pete-Clearwater CEO David Downing, who runs Pinellas' tourism marketing agency, said the impressive thing is that in five years his county has been setting visitation records with generally the same amount of hotel space.

But that hasn't stopped Pinellas from attracting nearly 900,000 new tourists in the past five years, since the total number of visitors fell to just under 5 million in 2009. And only now is Pinellas starting to add new hotels.

"There is a definite market force at play here when we're getting more mileage out of existing infrastructure," Downing said.

Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada, who runs Hillsborough's publicly funded, privately run tourism agency, credited the county's strong hotel performance in 2014 to a change in its business model: Hillsborough is starting to attract tourists throughout the seasons.

"We're usually talking about spring, because spring is very, very good for us," Corrada said. "That's when we get a lot of our conventions and meetings. Summers have been sluggish.

"But now we've been focusing a lot of our incentives on summer. Now summer is strong for us and fall can be strong, as well. Winter was a tough period for us but not anymore.

"We're starting to become a year-round destination."

Florida's visitation numbers were fueled by a record 11.5 million overseas visitors flocking to the state in 2014, and that doesn't include the record 3.8 million Canadians who also visited. In-state, Floridians took a record 20.2 million trips inside the state's borders.

Scott made the announcement at TIA, where he was introduced by CEO Joe Lopano. The airport has become one of the governor's favorite Tampa Bay backdrops. He has been a frequent visitor since he helped secure $194 million in state money last year to fund TIA's $943 million expansion plan.

"That has been critical for us to be able to fund this project," Lopano said, "and I want to say thank you, Gov. Scott."

The governor believes that Florida's good weather can do more than just attract tourists. Maybe it can also persuade businesses to relocate here. Next week, Scott will lead a delegation to Philadelphia to try to persuade companies to move to the Sunshine State.

"People who come to our state say the weather's nice, we don't have snow every Monday like they do up North," Scott said. "They say they want to live here, they want to move their business. So tourism is clearly growing our economy."

The governor also wants to see Florida set another tourism record this year.

"We're not going to stop," Scott said. "We're going to be over 100 million tourists in 2015."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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