Tourism industry sees modest growth

ST. PETERSBURG -- A flood of new visitors from Brazil and a stunning post-oil-spill rebound by Panhandle beaches were bright spots in 2011 for a Florida tourism industry that has weathered some hard times the past couple of years.

The $60 billion industry experienced modest growth this year, and officials expect a similar bump in 2012 as the nation’s economy continues to improve and the BP oil spill that fouled the shores of Gulf Coast states last year becomes a more distant memory.

Numbers through September released by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency, shows the volume of travelers to the state is up around 5 percent over the same stretch in 2010, driven by double-digit gains in overseas visitors. With a strong fourth quarter, Florida is on track to top 84 million visitors this year, the most since before the Great Recession when the industry was accustomed to solid growth year after year.

Final tallies for 2011 will be out early next year. Tourism is Florida’s leading industry, employing around 1 million people and accounting for more than one-fifth of the state’s total sales tax revenue.

“The (2011) numbers are a pretty clear indication that although we’re not totally out of the economic challenges that we’ve been facing for the last three or four years, maybe people see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Visit Florida chief Chris Thompson said.

Latin America is always a strong sector for Florida tourism, but the number of visitors from Brazil -- a country of 192 million people currently enjoying a booming economy -- is up by at least a third, drawn to the state’s theme parks, shopping, nightlife and international flair. Through September more visitors -- and dollars -- have come to Florida from Brazil than from the United Kingdom, which usually runs second to Canada in number of overseas tourists.

“What’s happening is that (Brazilians) who have never been able to travel abroad before because they didn’t have the means financially all of a sudden do have the means,” said Denise Arencibia, director of Latin America outreach for Visit Florida. She added that Latin American countries “have remained stable where Europe and the U.S. are having a hard time economy-wise.”

The other pleasant surprise was the Florida Panhandle beaches, which along with other Gulf Coast shores suffered in 2010 either from tar balls and sheen from the BP oil spill or the false perception that the entire coastline was fouled by crude. The spill killed summer 2010 for Panhandle hotels, condos, restaurants and attractions. This year, most of the beaches came back with record seasons.

The post-spill bounce was fueled partly by reparation money from BP to promote Gulf Coast beaches and some good luck -- tropical storms and hurricanes stayed away.

Tampa Bay-area beach hoteliers were wringing their hands in the late summer of 2010, plagued by the mistaken perception that BP oil was going to wash up any minute, when in reality it came nowhere close. They’re breathing a little easier after a surprisingly good year.

Bed-tax revenue growth for the area was expected to be about 1 to 2 percent this year. Instead the number jumped nearly 8 percent for the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

“I think there was some pent-up demand from people who had postponed or canceled their vacations, and I think we saw a return of people who may had gone somewhere else the year before” because of the threat of oil, Minich said.