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COVID-19 Arrival Slashes Tourism Numbers

 Employees of the Morada Bay Cafe in Islamorada, Fla., sit on chairs usually occupied by visitors
Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau via AP
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

TALLAHASSEE --- Tourism in Florida fell 10.7 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from the same period a year earlier, and the estimate may be optimistic.

The final month of the quarter, March, was impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic, which essentially shut down the hospitality industry statewide. A report posted online by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, said “data previously used to estimate Florida visitation may not paint the full picture during COVID-19.”

The report estimates that 31.95 million people visited the state during the first three months of the year. That compares to 35.79 million visitors during the first quarter in 2019.

Visit Florida also has pointed to potentially long-term effects of the coronavirus on the tourism industry, saying people are expected to initially prefer short drives rather than long flights as they look to travel. Also, the report said the virus is expected to have a major impact on people flying in and out of the state, which provides key data for quarterly tourism estimates.

“In many ways, COVID-19 has the potential to impact consumer behavior for years to come,” the report, dated May 15, said.

“We know that this rebound is going to take a while, and we have to make sure that Florida continues to be a top travel destination,” Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman told members of the agency’s Executive Committee in a May 7 conference call.

Passengers getting on board planes at 19 Florida airports in the quarter decreased 11.6 percent compared to 2019, the report said. And hotels, despite strong performance in January and February, ended the quarter with the number of hotel rooms sold down 13.2 percent.

The second quarter is expected to be worse for the numbers, as unemployment ballooned nationwide, and many businesses were closed or scaled back throughout April and May.

But Florida’s hospitality industry, including hotels and restaurants, last month began easing back into operations. Beaches have opened, along with vacation rentals in most counties. Also, major tourist destinations, which closed in mid-March, are slowly reopening with new physical-distancing rules in place for workers and guests.

Universal Orlando is opening certain hotels Tuesday, with its theme parks welcoming guests on Friday.

SeaWorld is expected to reopen on June 11. Disney is set to open the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11 and reopen Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15, according to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground will begin to reopen on June 22.

A checkpoint intended to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting access to the Florida Keys was lifted after two months on Monday. The Key West Chamber of Commerce said on its website that lodging will be limited to 50 percent of standard occupancy for the beginning stages of reopening.

Meanwhile, Visit Florida staff put current marketing plans on hold as it has worked on a “rebound plan” that will initially focus on Floridians taking in-state trips. The multi-step plan must still go before the organization’s Board of Directors, which is next scheduled to meet June 24.

In 2019, Florida attracted a record 131.4 million travelers, making it the ninth consecutive year of increased tourism numbers.

Domestic travelers, accounting for 28.5 million of this year’s first quarter visits, were down 9.7 percent from last year. Overseas travelers dropped 20.6 percent and Canadians dropped by 14.4 percent in the same year-to-year comparison.

Passengers getting on board planes at Orlando International Airport were down 10.8 percent for the quarter and 13.1 percent at Miami International Airport.

Only three airports posted gains for the quarter: Key West, up 3 percent; Punta Gorda, up 4.3 percent, and Sarasota, up 26 percent.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to resume professional sports, even in empty stadiums, could have benefits for some Central Florida hotels.

Major League Soccer and the National Basketball Association are working on completing their seasons at empty stadiums in Orlando. The MLS plan would be for a tournament beginning in July, the start of the third quarter.

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