State, federal funding offsets VISIT FLORIDA’s COVID-19 losses

Silhouettes passenger airport. Airline travel concept.
Increased domestic tourism over a record 2019 has tourism officials optimistic, despite setbacks.

The state’s tourism marketing corporation, VISIT FLORIDA, has a third less cash on hand than a year ago, and revenues from a trust fund derived from car rental surcharges are down about $8.4 million.

With the delta variant still wreaking havoc on hospital admissions and mortality, even with positive signs on the horizon, much is uncertain about the immediate future of tourism in the Sunshine State.

Still, leaders are optimistic.

New state and federal aid is on its way, and Florida is uniquely positioned to see its tourism take off, according to VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Dana Young, speaking to the corporation’s finance committee. The corporation’s total assets grew 0.3 percent over the last fiscal year, according to Tuesday’s report.

Tuesday’s meeting had plenty of grim financial news remaining from the effects of COVID-19, but the pandemic isn’t stopping VISIT FLORIDA’s signature event, the Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism. The event was canceled last year, but this year it’s expected to attract some 700 participants to the Diplomat Beach Resort Hollywood.

While other states have been shut down, Florida has been positioning itself to keep its tourism business growing, Young said. The last pre-pandemic year, 2019, was the 10th year in a row for record Florida tourism and the first quarter of the 2021 calendar is already exceeding that high-water mark for domestic travel by 6.6%, Young said.

“We have a tremendous head start and we have a strategic advantage that we were able to create during that roughly seven-month period when we were the only state actively marketing,” Young said. “We are … not just going to be satisfied to get back where we were.”

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the corporation received $53.6 million from the state. That was 9% more than was budgeted because of the COVID-19 rebound campaign.

For the coming year, VISIT FLORIDA is going to have $20.4 from the American Rescue Plan Act to work with. The corporation also expects to receive another $4 million in federal money that the state held back from spending. In July, the federal government notified the state that another $14.8 million in funding for tourism promotion is coming. The bulk of it, $12.8 million is going to be spent on attracting families and wintertime travel.

One committee member, Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, said his members saw a “sugar high” when people had their stimulus checks.

“The question mark now for us is whether folks will still feel comfortable spending, shopping,” Shalley said. “We hope they will.”

The Finance Committee members congratulated the VISIT FLORIDA staff for their efforts. Young said it couldn’t have been possible without Gov. Ron DeSantis laying the groundwork.

DeSantis opened the state’s nonessential businesses while many other states were in lockdown.

“He laid the runway and we just took off,” she said.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected]


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