Florida’s $80 billion tourism industry is the backbone of the Sunshine State, bringing millions of tourists to its beaches and theme parks each year. And insiders say that despite the heat of the Orlando nightclub shooting and the first mosquito-borne Zika cases, it is holding steady this summer.
“We’ve been tracking numerous channels and haven’t seen an impact to the destination,” George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, told TMR.
While the Zika outbreak was limited to a one-square-mile section of the Wynwood District of Miami, one of three new-found cases is outside the area but still in Miami-Dade County, the health department said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women and expectant mothers to avoid travel to the area—the first time the agency issued a travel warning within the continental United States. For the past week or so, Gov. Rick Scott has been meeting with residents and tourists—especially at top attractions like Disney World—to assure them the virus is confined.
The Visit Orlando tourism board reiterated that sentiment, noting Miami is over 200 miles away and has not seen any local Zika cases. To prevent the virus from spreading, Orlando has instituted mosquito control programs and “highly maintained landscaping efforts.”
“As the number-one travel destination in the United States, safety is our top priority,” Aguel said. There have been less than a dozen inquiries from travelers, he said.
“The whole industry in Orlando does an incredibly good job of mosquito abatement, and so we think we can keep it to a minimum,” agreed SeaWorld Entertainment president and CEO Joel Manby.
Still, “the hits just keep on coming,” Manby acknowledged on an earnings call with investors last week. SeaWorld Orlando reported a 7.6% drop in attendance in the second quarter, losing 494,000 visitors. Revenue was down 5% to $371 million.
Political and economic instability in Brazil and other Latin American countries also is hurting the bottom line, he said; Latin American attendance dropped by about 26%.
Manby noted that Universal recently lifted its blackout dates; Disney is offering Florida residents discounts earlier than it ever has (though it reported attendance at its parks was up for the last quarter); and Legoland is letting kids in free. “All competitors in the market are being very aggressive, so we thought we had to stay that way proactively and I think it’s working,” he said.
Occupancy rates have dipped only slightly from the first half of the year, and are still higher than the state and national average, Aguel noted.
Indeed, tourism is expected to remain healthy for the remainder of the summer, which is Florida’s low season.
Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, noted "we'll have to wait until the fall and winter before we start seeing if there is an impact on new bookings."
Indeed, it won’t be until travelers begin booking their winter trips that the Sunshine State—and the travel professionals who sell it—will see how things shake out.