|By Linda Kleindienst, South Florida
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 28, 2006 - Despite the four hurricanes that raked Florida in 2004 and again in 2005, a record 85.8 million tourists blew into the state last year.
"People are still going to want their sunshine. The natural disaster and hurricanes haven't seemed to deter that," said James Downey, associate dean for the College of Hospitality Management at Lynn University in Boca Raton.
While Miami-Dade and Broward counties saw increases, Palm Beach County saw a drop. The good news was that despite the decline, Palm Beach County still saw a 20 percent increase in spending on lodging.
"We had four major storms in each of the last two years and we still had growth," said Bud Nocera, president of Visit Florida, a public-private agency established in 1996 to promote the state through sales, advertising and public relations.
"Florida is amazingly resilient compared to other destinations. There is no state, and possibly no country, that is better equipped to deal with these storms."
Visit Florida officials said their next big push will be to tap the Chinese market, and a trip is planned for April.
"We're not going to rest on our laurels. We're looking at emerging markets," said Thom Stork, president and chief executive officer of The Florida Aquarium.
"China is beginning to travel, and we're there talking to them."
Preliminary statistics released by Visit Florida on Monday show 85.8 million visitors spent time in Florida last year -- the equivalent of the combined populations of California, New York, Florida and Illinois.
It represented an increase of 7.6 percent, or almost 6 million visitors, over 2004.
Even Hurricane Wilma, which pounded South Florida in October, didn't slow the growing tourist numbers. The last three months of 2005 still brought 16.6 million visitors to the state, a 0.7 percent increase over the last three months of 2004.
Indeed, the winter months of 2005 brought the most visitors to the state.
"In the wintertime, regardless of what happened in the summer, all is forgiven," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, referring to the hurricanes that swept through the state in 2004.
The best current estimate is that Broward saw a 7.8 percent jump in tourists during 2005 -- to 10.1 million -- even though Wilma forced the shortening of the annual boat show.
Miami-Dade visits increased by 3.1 percent, to 11.3 million.
Although the visitor count includes out-of-state evacuees and relief workers, it does not include Floridians who sought refuge from the storms in local hotels or relief workers who came from elsewhere in the state.
Palm Beach County saw a drop in visitors, based on a fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, mostly because several hotels remained out of commission from the 2004 hurricane season.
Despite that, county officials reported that tourists spent $623 million on lodging -- a 20 percent increase over 2004.
"These record-breaking tourism numbers represent a significant milestone for our tourism industry, contributing to Florida's booming economy," Gov. Jeb Bush said.
Pam Dana, director of the state Division of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, attributed much of the strong showing to the coordinated outreach to travelers through Visit Florida.
In the past decade, tourism has grown by 92 percent, from 44.8 million visitors in 1996. During the same time period, employment in the tourism industry has gone from 766,000 individuals to 944,500.
While most of Florida's tourist market is domestic -- more than 90 percent of those who visit come from within the continental United States -- an estimated 2.1 million Canadians traveled to the state, an 8.2 percent increase over 2004, and overseas travel increased by 6.3 percent, to 4.7 million.
Their spending contributed to Florida's budget.
Although the final 2005 figures aren't yet available, the state collected more than $3.4 billion in sales tax from its visitors in 2004 -- about 20 percent of the state's total sales tax collection.
"It allows us to pay less in taxes," Dana said. "When you see a tourist, run up and give them a hug."
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