ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – 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.
Panama City set a new record for bed-tax revenue, which was up 20 percent over 2009, the previous best year.
"We're still not back to exactly where we should have been had there not been an oil spill, but we're getting close," said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "By every estimation, it was a very, very good recovery here."
At the 2,400-acre Sandestin Gulf and Beach Resort in Destin, occupancy was up more than 26 percent through October over the same period in 2010. President John Russell attributes it to aggressive marketing, use of social media and making more rooms available through travel websites.
"We knew during the spill, especially after the well was capped, that we were really going to have to hustle to mitigate the damage and make sure we left it in 2010 and it didn't bleed over to 2011," Russell said. "We just didn't wait for the normal guests to come back because we didn't know that they would all come back, so we said let's find new people."
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.
Brian London, a Florida-based travel industry consultant, said he'd prefer to see more new huge "demand-generators," such as the popular Harry Potter theme park that opened at Universal Orlando in 2010, on the horizon. But he expects more measured growth next year and more big gains in the Canadian and Latin American markets.
"The numbers in 2012 are going to be positive coming off of 2011," he said. "However, all indicators will still not be at their pre-recession levels. We have yet to peak through that pre-recession high point."