But challenges also loom, including a potential drag on U.S. travel if Washington goes off the fiscal cliff and possible cutback in tourism spending by U.S. northeast residents hit by Superstorm Sandy.
In 2012, South Florida hosted record numbers of visitors who spent more than ever, led by growth in tourism powerhouse Miami-Dade County.
Broward County hit a new high for the budget year: 12 million visitors who spent $9.8 billion, up about 9 percent, thanks largely to surging arrivals from South America. And Palm Beach County hotels were poised to finish the year about 68 percent full, up by 3 points, aided mainly by recovery in the U.S. economy and business travel.
Also spurring tourism: a rebound in real-estate prices and credit. That’s reviving the market for new hotels that had stalled with recession. At least two new hotels are slated to open in Broward in 2013: the 105-unit Hampton Inn & Suites in Coconut Creek and the 219-room oceanfront Marriott Pompano Beach. And construction could finally begin on the long-awaited 349-room Margaritaville resort on Hollywood beach, pending final approval for $75 million in funding from Starwood Capital, developers said.
“I think international arrivals will be the main driver for growth in 2013 because of new flights to South Florida,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.”And the U.S. dollar remains cheap compared to other currencies, which makes it easier for visitors to come here and to buy when they’re here.”
Several airlines including JetBlue and Spirit have added service to Latin America and the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. And American Airlines is beefing up its already huge Latin American hub in Miami, even expanding to new cities in Brazil, the No. 1 source of overseas travelers to Florida, the airports said.
To tap growing South American business, Broward’s tourism bureau plans to hire its first representative company in Brazil this budget year. And Palm Beach County’s tourism bureau is exploring the possibility of hiring a marketing rep there too, said Jorge Pesquera, president of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
South Florida hotels also are reaching out to lure more international guests. The 240-unit B Ocean Fort Lauderdale beach resort is translating its website into Spanish and Portuguese, said general manager Eduardo Fernandez. B Ocean finished 2012, its second year in business, about 68 percent full at average rates topping $150 a night. It targets growth of about 15 percent in its third year of business, with help from aggressive marketing on the Internet and through mobile applications, said Fernandez.
Port Everglades also is benefiting from international visitors on cruises. It expects about 3.6 million passengers on multi-day cruises in the year ending Sept. 30, about flat from a year ago. Business is aided by $54 million in cruise terminal upgrades, port officials said.
Still, there are challenges. In Broward County, the largest annual convention held for years in the city finished up in Lauderdale in 2012, seeking a larger convention center with an adjoining hotel. Both the county’s tourism bureau and individual hotels now are working to fill that gap with other groups. The bureau is targeting more gay, black and multi-cultural conferences and events, building on strengths in the resident community, said Grossman.
No one knows how much fallout from Sandy may cut into travel plans from residents in the U.S. northeast, traditionally the top market for winter visitors to South Florida.
“The storm in New York-New Jersey has softened our most important market a little bit, so that’s a concern,” conceded Palm Beach County’s Pesquera.
And then, there’s the big unknown: whether politicians in Washington will send the country over the fiscal cliff with tax increases and spending cuts or for how long.
“Every business in the United States needs to be concerned about that,” said Grossman. “People are going to mange their wallets based on what Washington does.”