Speaking at a chilly Tampa International Airport, Gov. Rick Scott and Tampa Bay tourism officials hailed the record-breaking number of visitors to Florida this past year, but the governor also acknowledged it will take more than just tourism to drive the Florida economy.
There were 97 million tourists who visited the Sunshine State in 2014, exceeding the previous high of 93.7 million in 2013. The number of direct travel-related jobs in 2014 was also a record high, with 1,135,700 Floridians employed in the tourism industry, up 3.6 percent from 2013, a focus for Scott.
“Every 85 tourists is a job,” Scott told reporters after he and other Tampa Bay area tourism officials touted the historic numbers. He said the state’s weather and low crime rate are recruiting tools to have them live in Florida. “They want to buy a house. They want to move their businesses down here. … and it impacts jobs.”
Tourism, health care and retail jobs (that don’t pay all that much) have been the leading drivers in Florida’s economic recovery, but Scott touted that he’s also recruited major manufacturing companies to come to the Sunshine State. “Tourism still drives our economy,” he said. “It creates a lot of jobs, and they’re good-paying jobs. But we’ve got to continue to grow others.”
That led to his pitch for a sales tax break for manufacturers, “So we get more of the advanced manufacturing jobs.” He mentioned how the state has lured companies such as Lockheed Martin, Verizon, Northrup Grunman and AT&T to Florida, but said removal of more taxes would be ever better. “We’re seeing those jobs growing.”
Scott proposed a sales tax exemption for new manufacturing machinery and equipment in 2013, but the Legislature only approved a limited exemption for three years. Scott is calling for that tax to be permanently eliminated in his recently proposed 2015-2016 budget.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Scott said, but acknowledged that there’s more work to be done.
The news conference was held outside the third floor of the airport in what TIA’s CEO Joe Lopano said would be used for outdoor dining and terraces, where an automated people mover station linked to rental cars will be located. It’s part of the nearly billion dollar master plan renovation at the airport, already under way.
“Customers will be able to come right out here and go up an escalator, and be on a train to the rental car center. It will take them there in just three minutes,” he said.
The record tourism numbers are reflected locally. Last week, officials with Visit Tampa Bay announced they had collected $24 million in bed taxes for the fiscal year, 12 percent than the year before, a record amount. Hotel revenue collections were up 15 percent.
“And that growth meant we outpaced other great American cities in our competitive set like Baltimore, Austin, Fort Worth, Long Beach and San Antonio,” Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada said. “It means economic development. It means growth.”
Pinellas County collected more than $35 million in bed taxes last year, said David Downing with Visit St.Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas’ tourism agency. It’s only getting better he said, referring to December’s bed taxes, up 17 percent. “That’s a record, on top of a record, on top of a record,” Downing repeated.
Both Corrada and Downing also boasted about new hotel developments under way in their respective counties as an indication of how strong the growth has been in local tourism.