Visit Florida has had rough go of it the last few years.
The state’s embattled public-private tourism marketing agency, under withering attacks from self-anointed fiscal conservatives, has lost half its funding and a third of its staff. And thus, the only agency with an exclusive mission to support a key pillar of the state’s economy finds itself on the legislative chopping block — again.
How’s that for good governance?
The reasoning: With tourism from Palm Beach to Orange to Santa Rosa counties setting annual growth records over the past decade, fiscal watchdogs question Visit Florida’s effectiveness and its need to exist.
After all, who doesn’t already know that Florida is home to warm weather, miles of beaches, theme parks, outlet malls and golf courses?
“If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida’s budget cut in half, it begs the question: Is it necessary at all?” Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, told the Post’s John Kennedy in September.
That view is not only shortsighted, but premature.
Ashley Svarney, senior director of public relations and social media for Discover The Palm Beaches, put it this way: “By doing away with Visit Florida, we are genuinely biting off the hand that feeds us all.”
Ending Visit Florida’s marketing support makes about as much sense as Coca-Cola eschewing millions of dollars in advertising because “Coke” is already the best-known soft-drink brand name in the world.
Florida’s success not withstanding, we are far from the only game in town when it comes to competing for valuable tourism dollars — be it business or personal, or domestic or foreign visits. The state needs every bit of help it can get to maintain and grow its competitive advantage. And spending $50 million a year on an industry that generates well north of $100 billion in yearly taxable spending is peanuts.
Thankfully, Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to get it. Pushing back against the fiscal hawks in his own party, the Republican governor maintains that $50 million in funding for Visit Florida in his proposed $91.4 billion budget for 2020-21 fiscal year.
It was DeSantis, in fact — with help from the Senate — who kept Oliva and company from ending Visit Florida in the last session.
Oliva followed his predecessor, former Speaker Richard Corcoran, in declaring war on Visit Florida. Corcoran in 2017 railed against the agency’s free-spending ways, which included an almost $2.9 million contract with an auto racing team called Visit Florida Racing and a $1 million promotional contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.
But strangely, the biggest argument against Visit Florida appears to be the state’s own tourism success. A record 127 million tourists visited the state in 2018, another banner year in a string of record years since the Great Recession. This growth came despite last year’s red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks, plus the devastating effects of Hurricane Michael.
In the first nine months of this year, 101 million people visited the Sunshine State, a 3.7% increase over the first nine months of 2018 — and, yes, another record — according to estimates Visit Florida released on Wednesday.
But those figures come with a warning: That trend could be ending.
“Now we’re going to start to see this pendulum — I’m fearful — swinging in the other direction, which it already has,” Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said.
Dover and other tourism officials worry that while a record 31.6 million people visited the Sunshine State in this year’s third quarter, that was only 1.2% better than the same quarter last year — the smallest increase since 2010. Moreover, ... the agency adjusted down its second-quarter numbers slightly from 33.1 million to 32.9 million.
Does this mean the sky is falling? No. But state officials would be foolish to ignore it.
To be sure, the impact of shuttering Visit Florida wouldn’t be felt evenly across the state. Markets like Central Florida — which includes Disney World and Universal Studios — the Tampa Bay region, and Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, are niche brands all their own.
But, as Svarney indicated, that doesn’t mean local businesses and governments don’t look to Visit Florida to keep our state top of mind when it comes to travel destinations.
As DeSantis released his budget proposal last week, he acknowledged that it remains a “source of some contention.”
But Oliva, in his statement after DeSantis released the spending plan, didn’t specifically address Visit Florida.
We hope that’s a good sign.
An editorial from the Palm Beach Post.