Florida's tourism industry caught between virus protections and profits

'It's absolutely critical for the recovery of our state economy,' Visit Florida president says
Pass-a-Grille Beach, Oct. 2020.
Posted at 5:51 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 17:51:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If Florida is going to rebound from COVID-19, its tourism industry needs to recover -- and it won't be easy. The state's travel officials have to balance success with safety as more infectious virus variants continue to spread.

The hottest months of travel season are ahead for Florida -- spring break, summer vacations and those quick getaways.

"Oh my gosh, yes," said Peggy Rigsby, a North Florida resident and recent retiree. "I love traveling."

Rigsby had been looking forward to it until COVID-19 concerns canceled her plans in 2020 and beyond.

"I haven't scheduled any for 2021 because I don't really know what's going to happen," she said.

That hesitancy isn’t uncommon. Recent national polling by IPX1031, a Chicago-based financial services company, shows a lot of travel apprehension -- especially by air. Only 48% of Americans were planning to book flights in 2021. Most people, 80%, wanted to wait until next year.

Enter the state's tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida. After a 34% drop in visitors in 2020, the lowest since 2010, officials are now ramping up efforts to recover.

Dana Young, Visit Florida President
Visit Florida President Dana Young says they are targeting out-of-state residents living in the Midwest and West Coast to visit Florida.

"It's absolutely critical for the recovery of our state economy," said Dana Young, Visit Florida President. "The tourism industry here in Florida is our No. 1 economic driver."

Young said Visit Florida had success last year targeting in-state travelers and is expanding with a winter campaign, which started about two weeks ago. Those under tight virus protection like the Midwest and West Coast are in the crosshairs of new promotions.

"We have what people are looking for," Young said. "A chance to get out and enjoy nature and enjoy the weather and have a little taste of freedom."

However, that freedom may come at a cost. New, more infectious variants of the virus continue to spread faster here. And despite vaccination increasing, federal health officials warn recent case decline isn't connected.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warns that more travel could result in a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"We believe that much of the surge of disease happened related to the holidays, related to travel," said Director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Rochelle Walensky. "And so we believe that now we're coming down from that."

Another surge of travel and lax mitigation could put us back where we were. It’s why the CDC continues to discourage unnecessary travel.

Visit Florida finds itself caught in between protections and profits.

"As we've seen at some of our theme parks, like Disney, Universal, Legoland, etc., they have been able to be open without any major issues whatsoever," Young said. "We believe that people can come to Florida today and have a fantastic time with family and friends."

Rigsby won't be among them, however. Though she has both vaccine doses, she's waiting for COVID's cancellation before rescheduling her plans.

"I'm just going to have to be smart about it," said Rigsby. "I think that's what we all really have to do."

Recovery will take time. State economists think tourism may need up to three years to bounce back. Visit Florida said it hopes to beat that estimate.

  • The state saw a 34% drop in visitors last year
  • Tourism-marketing officials at Visit Florida are trying to bring those numbers back up
  • They've started a winter campaign targeting Midwest and West Coast states still under virus protection
  • Meanwhile, the CDC continues to discourage unnecessary travel as more infectious virus mutations spread