By Jim Turner
Florida attracted a record number of tourists during the first three months of 2022, surpassing totals from similar quarters before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the hospitality and leisure industry.
Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, posted information Friday showing that 35.982 million people traveled to the state between January and March.
With tourism a key engine of the state’s economy, that was 39.6 percent higher than during the first quarter of 2021, a time when COVID-19 vaccines were becoming more widely available. It also was 19.29 percent over the first quarter of 2020, when the virus hit the state.
More important for tourism officials, the new total was up 1.35 percent from the first quarter of 2019, before the pandemic started.
“I can tell you by seeing all the cars on the road, I think that there’s a lot more people still coming to visit Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a May 4 news conference at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill in Clearwater.
As has been the case since the pandemic started, the vast majority of people traveling to Florida — 95 percent — during the first three months of the year came from other states.
After DeSantis alluded to record domestic tourism during the May 4 appearance, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young credited the DeSantis-led push to reopen businesses months after the initial hit from the pandemic.
“The ability to be in market for almost seven months … where not another state was doing anything outside their borders, helped us create an incredible strategic advantage for the state of Florida,” Young said.
Florida has now recorded four consecutive quarters attracting more than 30 million visitors. It also has posted three consecutive quarters with numbers topping the same periods in 2019, when the state handled a record 131.07 million tourists.
Even with the increases during this year’s first quarter, the state attracted just 1.323 million visitors from overseas and 578,000 from Canada.
In the first quarter of 2019, the state saw 2.276 million overseas travelers and 1.446 million Canadians.
The number of overseas travelers fell to 1.76 million in the first quarter of 2020, as businesses and borders began shutting down. With virus-related restrictions hindering most international travel in 2021, the first-quarter total dropped to 492,000.
After attracting nearly 1.45 million Canadians in the first quarter of 2019, the numbers fell to 1.25 million in the first quarter of 2020 and 55,000 in the same period of 2021.
COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by Canada also resulted in Colombia being the top nation of origin for international travelers during the full year of 2021.
Visit Florida recorded 709,000 visitors in 2021 from the South American country, accounting for 15.3 percent of international travelers coming to Florida. Canada was next at 584,000 visitors for the year, followed by Mexico at 389,000 and Peru at 261,000.
In 2019, 4.09 million Canadians came to Florida, making up 29.4 percent of the state’s tourists. The United Kingdom was second at 9.6 percent, with 1.33 million visitors. Colombia ranked fifth behind Brazil and Argentina.
Florida lawmakers in March passed a proposed budget that includes $50 million to fund Visit Florida’s tourism-marketing efforts during the upcoming 2022-2023 fiscal year. The agency received $80 million for the current fiscal year, which included $30 million in federal stimulus money. Lawmakers have not formally sent the 2022-2023 spending plan to DeSantis, who has line-item veto power.
Last Friday, DeSantis signed into law a measure (SB 434) that extends the authorization of Visit Florida from Oct. 1, 2023, to Oct. 1, 2028.
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