Florida Tourism Up 4% And Panhandle Looks Strong

Feb 17, 2015

Kids enjoying Pensacola Beach September 2014
Credit Photo via Flickr// Matt Deavenport / https://flic.kr/p/p2yo5f

If you wondered why you spent a little more time in line at attractions last year, or it took a bit longer to find an unoccupied spot at the beach, the numbers are in to explain.

Almost 4%  more people came to the Sunshine State in 2014 over the previous year, according to figures released by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm. That’s inching closer to an annual goal sought by Gov. Rick Scott.

“This is a great day: 97.3 million tourists,” said the Governor. “I look forward to passing 100 million tourists.”

The state Department of Economic Opportunity estimates that of the 9.1 million people currently employed in Florida, 1.1 million have jobs related to the tourism industry. Scott is asking the Legislature to increase tourism-marketing money from the current $74 million to $85 million, in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Only two other states that are traditional holiday venues spend more on self-marketing: California at $100 million, and Hawaii at about $80 million. Steve Hayes, President of Visit Pensacola, the local tourism marketing agency, says the numbers here reflect a several positive factors.

“Throw in the fact that we’ve had some great weather here,” Hayes said. “The fact that there’s a lot of positive buzz about the greater Pensacola area. And then you throw in the fact that I think people have the confidence; that they have the money they can travel.”

The increase in visitors also means more revenue. Visit Florida reports that around 12% of all state sales tax revenue comes from spenders who don’t live in Florida. UWF Economist Rick Harper says that also benefits the Panhandle, where tourism is enjoying rapid growth.

“All non-farm employment in the Pensacola metro area is about 25% higher than it was way back in 1990,” said Harper. “Leisure and Hospitality employment has almost doubled over that same time. And it’s also growing faster than employment in the rest of the state.”

And that growth is well-needed. Harper says between Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach there’s been a drop in federal military employment since the 2005 round of BRAC, Base Realignment and Closure. Add a manufacturing sector that’s 40% smaller than a generation ago, and it appears to be “Tourism Uber Alles.”

Visit Florida estimates 11.5 million of Florida’s visitors came here from overseas. But the majority came through domestic travel, with many of them driving to the attractions in northwest Florida. Steve Hayes at Visit Pensacola expects higher numbers in 2015.

Another four million “snowbirds” came from Canada and elsewhere last year. UWF’s Rick Harper says they’re helping the Panhandle become better-known, which in turn will draw even more visitors, which will lead to more growth.

Tourism officials are now turning their attention to boosting the number of visitors through eco-tourism and more trips in areas off the beaten path.