TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott announced record tourism numbers to applause Thursday, but the audience may have been stacked.
Flanked by dozens of people whose jobs depend on tourism, and held in Busch Gardens, which relies on the largess of strangers, Scott said visitors flocked to Florida over the first three months of the year like never before.
He hoped by the end of 2014, 100 million visitors will have sunbathed on the sandy beaches, tripped out on gut-wrenching theme park rides, stayed at lavish hotels and bought sumptuous meals here.
Scott said that the state gradually is pulling itself out of the funk which started when the economy tanked in 2008.
He said that over the first quarter this year, the stated logged 26.7 million visitors, compared to 23.3 million in 2011. The numbers are for the strongest part of the tourist season in the Sunshine State, the winter months. With that comes jobs, he said. After March this year, there were 1,125,300 jobs directly related to tourism, compared to 1,008,300 jobs three years ago.
“Every 85 tourists creates one job,” he said, and the number of jobs created by tourism this year, “is a record number.”
The news conference took place on the terrace of the Crown Colony House in Busch Gardens, with tropical birds squawking in a nearby palm tree and the Cheetah Gifts shop as a backdrop. Ringing Scott were Busch Gardens employees and state and local tourism officials, who applauded at each mention of tourism numbers.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he welcomes visitors.
“This is important stuff, folks,” he said, adding that the Tampa region has added more tourism jobs than any other part of Florida.
He gave props to Busch Gardens for being a driving force behind that number.
He also patted the governor and Florida Legislature on their backs for approving funding for the $1 billion first phase of improvements at Tampa International Airport, which he described as “our gateway to the world.”
International visitors stay longer and tend to spend more money and the region is poised to be the destination location for many more foreign tourists, officials agreed.
“We will dance on that international stage,” Buckhorn said, “like we’ve never danced before.”
The 26.7 million tourists who came to Florida during this year’s first quarter, represents a 2 percent jump over the same period in 2013. According to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm, the number of visitors so far this year is the highest quarterly total ever.
The number of tourists who came to Florida in 2013 was a 3.5 percent increase over the year before, according to state tourism figures.
Those statistics showed a record 21.9 million people visited the state from October through December, a 2.2 percent gain over the year-ago period.
Last year, nearly 95 million people visited the state. Scott vowed to boost that number to 100 million this year.
“We firmly are on the path to getting 100 million tourists,” said Will Seccombe, president of Visit Florida. “And April and May look just as strong, if not stronger” than the first three months.
Visit Florida estimated record highs of 11.5 million overseas visitors and 3.7 million Canadians came to Florida in 2013, 11.1 percent and 4.1 percent increases over 2012, respectively. Estimates reflect a 2.5 percent increase in domestic visitors to Florida in 2013 and show Floridians took a record total of 20.1 million in-state pleasure trips.
According to industry observers, Florida tourism outpaced the rest of the nation by 1.3 percentage points last year and room revenue in Florida for 2013 was up 8.2 percent, compared with a 6.2 percent U.S. increase.
The governor toured Orlando theme parks last week, visiting Universal Orlando Resort, which will create nearly 3,500 new jobs this year as it builds the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, adds an on-site hotel and expands its CityWalk entertainment complex
Tampa area tourism officials say there are 63,000 tourism-related jobs in Hillsborough County and 83,000 similar jobs in Pinellas County.
“We really are having a tremendous year,” said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.