Tourism officials are keeping a cautious eye on the horizon, beyond the coast, beyond the sea, to see if the harsh and isolationist international rhetoric and tough policies of President Donald Trump could sour foreign tourists on Florida.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith and Visit Orlando President George Aguel both warned Orange County officials at a recent meeting of the Orange County Tourist Development Commission that while international visitation remains strong at the moment, the industry is growing nervous that could change.
While they did not explicitly name the American president, both referred to American administration policies and statements that are making American tourism leaders nervous. And other factors international factors, from the United Kingdom’s Brexit move to currency valuations may not bode well either.
The same topic came up at another recent meeting, that of the statewide tourism development organization, VISIT FLORIDA. And while the concerns were more dismissed there, they were noted as possible concerns.
“Right now the overall prediction for international travel to the U.S. will be declining,” Aguel told the Orange County board. “However, fortunately for us, I think we’ll be able to hold our own, especially with three core international markets (United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil) we’re all familiar with.
“The tourism industry is deeply concerned about some of the rhetoric that is taking place and is in fact having an impact on people considering visitation to the U.S.,” Aguel added. “U.S. Travel, the World Tourism Association, even one of our leading convention organizations… If only because, for some of these conventions, they’re international delegations are very important part. And many international delegates have said we’re just not sure we should come.”
Typically there is a lag of six months to a year between economic forces and reactions within the tourism industry, because of advance bookings. The lag time is longer with conventions, which typically are booked years in advance.
However, incoming VISIT FLORIDA Chair Maryann Ferenc, who owns the Mise en Place restaurant in Tampa, said she and others already are hearing anecdotally about attendance being down at Florida meetings of international groups, and wondered what that foretold.
“The only thing that gives us pause right now is the international market. Even there, I just don’t know how much of the international evaluation is anecdotal, or how much of it is real. We’ve heard ‘Trump slump.’ We’ve heard ‘Trump bump,’” VISIT FLORIDA Interim Chief Marketing Officer Nelson Mongiovi responded to the board. “I’ll tell you the only true data I’ve seen to date in April was U.S. visitation was actually up 12 percent.”
Both the VISIT FLORIDA and the Orange County Touristy Development Commission received a bevy of such good-news reports at the same time as the international concerns. Visitor numbers are at record levels. Hotel occupancy is up, and so are room prices. Tourist tax dollars are running well ahead of projections.
In Orlando, convention business is running ahead of last year, tax subsidies to the convention center are falling, and cash is building there.
And Florida’s, particularly Orlando’s economy, is solid.
But there are those clouds way out on the horizon.
Aguel pointed out that Orlando is the nation’s fourth-busiest visitors market for international travelers, behind New York, Los Angeles and Miami. And he said New York’s tourism officials are predicting a decline in visitation this year, while those in Los Angeles is projecting a very slight increase.
“They say its because of these [federal] policies. I”m not sure we agree,” Aguel said. “There are other factors, such as currency.”
The potential impact is bigger than the share of the market international visitors have, because international visitors typically stay far longer and spend far more on trips to Florida than domestic travelers, he said.
“We’re keeping a close eye on what’s happening internationally,” he said.