Tourism in Florida roared to a record in 2011 with an estimated 86 million visitors traveling to the Sunshine State, a sign that the extended tourist lull from the Great Recession, hurricanes and the BP oil spill may be receding.
The visitor count was up 4.4 percent from 2010, and topped a previous record set in the rosier economic environment of 2007, according to figures released Thursday by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency.
But if current conditions hold, that top mark could be short-lived, especially as measured by Southwest Florida’s experience so far in 2012.
Local tourism officials say this winter tourism season is off to a solid start, thanks largely to warmer January temperatures compared with the extended cold snaps of the previous two years.”
Bookings are really strong, so we think the season is coming in much greater than anticipated,” said Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Higher 2011 visitor counts were tallied across the board. Domestic tourists increased 3.0 percent, Canadian visitors rose 5.7 percent and overseas travel jumped 16.1 percent the latter two groups the result of chugging economies in Canada and South America.
In-state pleasure trips by Florida residents seeking relatively inexpensive “stay-cations” last year grew by 12.5 percent.
Hoteliers and rental operators throughout the state say they, too, are seeing signs of significant improvement.
Larry Starr, whose ResortQuest Southwest Florida manages 1,000 vacation rentals from St. Petersburg to Punta Gorda, said business has rebounded strongly.
“We are having our best year since 2007, which was considered the best year ever,” Starr said. “We see that trend continuing into the future as well.”
Business at the 28-unit BridgeWalk and the 50-unit Silver Surf Gulf Beach resorts, both on Anna Maria Island, jumped about 20 percent in 2011, said partner Angela Rodocker.
“It feels like we’ve waited a long time for this to come back,” she said.
Rodocker attributes the gains to pent-up demand and more confidence in the economy.
She believes her properties will see another 20 percent gain this year, especially since occupancy has been strong so far in 2012.
“We’ve had such incredible weather this year,” she said. “It’s been a mild winter up north, but you still can’t put on a bathing suit in 40-degree weather.”
The 2011 numbers and anecdotal perspective provide fresh evidence that the state’s No. 1 industry has rebounded from the longest economic recession in seven decades, and the 2010 BP oil spill that kept visitors away from beaches and attractions.
The increased number of visitors resulted in more jobs, too. Travel-related employment rose to a near-record 1.01 million, an increase of 38,000 jobs or 4 percent over the year.
Gov. Rick Scott said the gains show that tourism is “the leading driver of Florida’s rebounding economy,” especially because the industry generates nearly a quarter of the state’s sales tax.
“Every 85 visitors support one Florida job, so I’m incredibly proud of our industry’s continued growth as we work to strengthen the economy and provide much-needed employment,” said Tony Lapi, Visit Florida’s chairman and chief executive of ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort, on Captiva Island.
But there are potential challenges ahead. The rising price of gasoline up about 40 cents a gallon over the year and on a fast track to hit $4 per gallon could put a damper on tourism spending.
The higher price of gas could especially impact summer tourism, when in-state trips account for the largest percentage of travelers.
“People will still come, but they won’t stay as long and they won’t spend as much,” Haley said.
Further economic turmoil in the Eurozone could depress international travel to Florida, too, though the state’s strongest foreign travel markets of late have been the United Kingdom, Germany and Brazil.
“We are hearing from travel wholesalers overseas that bookings are strong, but we just don’t know if that will stay on pace,” Haley said.
Sarasota County posted a 10.2 percent gain in visitors and a 13.9 percent hike in direct visitor expenditures during its first fiscal quarter, which ran from October through December. During the calendar year, the average daily room rate was up 5.5 percent, to $118.21.
Manatee County hosted a record 492,300 visitors in 2011, a 6.7 percent increase for the year, said Debbie Meihls, executive manager at the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
December was strong with 31,400 guests, a 10.6 percent increase from the same month in 2010.
“It was a banner year for us as a destination,” she said.
But the bureau is also closely watching the price of gas. Its research experts warn that if fuel hits $5.15 a gallon, regional tourism will suffer.
“If gas hits that, it could affect the economic impact of tourism on the drive market,” she said.
On a statewide level, the 14 major airports reported an 11.9 percent increase in enplanements last year, Visit Florida said. Taxable sales in the tourism and recreation sector rose 7.2 percent through November, the most recent data available.
State officials say Florida tourism has been regaining market share since January 2011, outpacing the rest of the country by 2 percentage points. Smith Travel Research reported room revenue rose 10.9 percent in Florida last year compared with 8.8 percent for the U.S.
“Perhaps the best news is that, despite a very competitive environment, Florida was able to grow our market share of total U.S. visitors,” said Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer at Visit Florida.