Florida faces a big summer of travel and tourism

Florida is experiencing yet another boom in tourism well into May this year — with the slow days of summer long gone, industry experts say.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday said the state has been seeing record-breaking tourism numbers: Florida had 36 million visitors between January and March this year, a 14% increase over the fourth quarter of 2021. It’s also the third consecutive quarter that Florida has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Speaking in West Palm Beach, DeSantis touted the state’s strong fiscal standing, adding it “would not have happened” had businesses remained closed to curb the pandemic. “The people that wanted to travel,” he said. “There was only one main option to do: Florida. People had to come.”

Despite a rising number of COVID cases, including a projected surge this summer, travelers have been eager to enjoy time with their friends and family.

Many parts of the U.S. are similarly poised for increases in travel, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA recently predicted travel volumes will be back to pre-pandemic travel, the summer before everything shut down due to the coronavirus in 2019. Occasionally, the number of people traveling may even exceed that amount, the TSA said in a news release.

In the Greater Fort Lauderdale area, demand for hotel rooms is up 12% compared to the same time in 2019. It’s even up 5% from last year, according to Visit Lauderdale, Broward County’s tourism promotion arm.

Some customers are traveling to South Florida from new areas of the country, such as the Midwest. Midwesterners tend to vacation on Florida’s west coast. But this year, Visit Lauderdale’s top 10 markets shifted to include Ohio cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, Stacy Ritter said. She’s the president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale.

“We are looking at a strong summer season here,” she said. “We don’t expect it to be as record-breaking as 2021 was, because that was really an incredible boom for us.”

But with COVID on people’s minds less and less, many may still be looking to fulfill their pent-up desire to travel, trying to vacation before facing any possible inflation-related financial challenges. “People are willing to take one more summer vacation before they worry about their budget,” said Peter Ricci, director of hospitality and tourism management programs at Florida Atlantic University.

It’s a similar story in Palm Beach County.

Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches, wrote that his company is “very optimistic” about a robust leisure travel season. They expect to see similar levels of demand as last year, he wrote.

“Our range, accessibility and diversity of experiences is unique in Florida,” he said. “Even though inflation is impacting some decisions to travel, only 6% of American travelers indicated that they are canceling trips due to rising gas prices,” he said, citing the latest Longwoods International Travel Sentiment study, a market research consultancy within the travel and tourism industry.

Most travelers will adjust their planned trips rather than cancel, he said. They do so by staying closer to home, reducing the number of trips planned, or reallocating how much they spend on retail, food and accommodations.

“Groups, meetings, and sports bookings in the Palm Beaches are significantly higher this summer compared to last, adding to the overall demand,” he said. “We are on track for a record year.”

Ricci suspects tourists are continuing to travel to South Florida later in the year for a number of reasons.

First, many more people have moved to the state permanently. With that comes hotel stays and eating out at restaurants, especially as their family members help them move or come back to visit, he said.

Because of that, businesses such as country clubs that would normally hire seasonally are holding onto those hires or continually hiring year-round.

He estimates during pre-pandemic times that about 40% or 50% of country club members were full-time residents. Now, he believes that number has jumped to nearly 75%, he said.

Normally by this time of year, hotels and destination marketing companies would be sending him samples of their summer discounts, he said. “I have not received any of those, so it appears they’re not planning to discount just yet,” he said.

Another force driving a high number of people to Florida is postponed, yet prepaid, cruises. Because they’ve already paid, inflation is not a concern, he said.

The same goes for large conferences and conventions that were pushed back to 2022 or 2023, he said.

With more people traveling to Florida for their cruises or conventions, they’re booking hotel rooms before and after their trip, when they fly back home, he said.

That’s good news for hotels, restaurants, cruise lines. Not so good for traffic and crowds in Florida, he said.

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“Anyone whose lived here a long time does not see the ebb and flow of the summer low season like we used to,” he said. “It’s definitely noticeable that people are staying year-round.”

However, Ricci doesn’t think the trend will last much longer. “It’s obvious a recession’s on the way,” he said. This could be the last gasp of summer travel before the economy takes another dive.

But he doesn’t see cruises or conventions getting canceled before then, either. Such events could act as a life raft for South Florida hotels, restaurants, country clubs, etc.

“In terms of the things that will buffer us entering in to a recession, we’re in far better shape in Florida than many other states,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel guidelines May 16 to say travelers should consider getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible, and no longer than three days before the trip.

The agency also recommends getting tested after travel if the trip involved situations with greater risk of exposure, “such as being in crowded places while not wearing a well-fitting mask or respirator.”

Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: [email protected], 954-422-0857 or on Twitter: @bybbaitinger