State tourism slump misses Miami, visitors bureau says
By Charlotte Libov
Though visitors to Florida declined in the third quarter, the influx to the Miami area kept rising, up 2.8%.
According to David Whitaker, senior vice president of marketing for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, July-September arrivals rose to 2.44 million visitors. That compared to a 2.4% drop for the state as a whole, according to Visit Florida, the state's official tourist and marketing organization. Smith Travel Research furnished the figures.
"We've very pleased to have gotten through the summer and we're always looking to grow the numbers — that's the bottom line," Mr. Whitaker said. "This is great news for us, considering what we were anticipating and what we were worried about."
Officials at the Greater Miami bureau had worried that fears about hurricanes would dampen figures, a fear that apparently did not hit home here, although Visit Florida spokeswoman Vanessa Welter cited it as playing a role in the downturn in the overall state tourism picture.
For Miami-Dade County, the 2.8% increase included a 3.8% jump in international travelers and a 1.9% spurt in domestic visitors, which was not unexpected, Mr. Whitaker said, noting that in Latin America, "our summer is their winter."
Miami area visitor figures were up for the first nine months of the year as well, with a 2.8% increase, or just over 8.6 million visitors, encompassing a 1.2% increase in international travelers and a 4.2% increase in domestic visitors.
Recent statistics had showed a drop in the county's hotel occupancy, with 61.9% of rooms occupied in August, compared with 67.4% in August 2005. September occupancy was 57%, a 7 percentage-point drop from 64.1% a year earlier.
But these latest figures show that, even with hotel occupancy down, the number of visitors still rose, up 3.2% in August and 3.4% in September. The county's weakest figures over the past nine months came in the first quarter, which held steady compared to the year before.
Mr. Whitaker, Ms. Welter and other state tourism officials were to be spending the next 2½ days at a state-sponsored retreat to map strategy to help bolster Florida tourism.
According to statewide figures, after three quarters Florida had attracted roughly 66.9 million visitors, down less than 1% from 2005. But Visit Florida's 2006 forecast had called for a 3% increase. Statewide tourism grew nearly 5% in 2005 to a record 83.6 million, after a 7% increase in 2004.
According to Ms. Welter, however, the statewide campaign is suffering from a lack of funds to lure tourists compared to what other destinations spend.
"There is a sea change going on around the world," she said. "Florida is a top destination in the US and globally and we've enjoyed this since the 1950s. But what you have is a world around us that's recognized the value of tourism and you've got states putting millions of dollars toward marketing that they haven't been before. States including California, Texas, Hawaii, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia have really funded their advertising."
In addition, she said, the state is being outspent internationally. "Australia is going after the UK market, which is our market, and spending $180 million over the next three years. We spent $1.5 million last year, so we are going to be out-voiced."
State tourism also is suffering internationally, she said, because of confusion over which documents are needed to visit the US.
Although Miami-Dade County did better in tourism than the state overall, Mr. Whitaker said it's not time for the visitors bureau to relax. "Popular visitor destinations can be resilient," he said, "as long as they stay relevant to the consumer."