Florida tourism struggles under grip of COVID-19

Jim Abbott
Daytona Beach News-Journal
Walton Sun

Even in a pandemic, Florida still attracts tourists.

Even as the state has become a hotbed for the novel coronavirus, it remains a favored destination, a scenario that tourism and medical experts agree could result in more spread without consistent adherence to public health guidelines.

According to data from travel website trivago.com, Florida was the site’s most popular destination from April to July, generating a 21% “click-out” rate of users who clicked on trip deals that sent them to outside travel booking sites.

Although the state has seen a 24% decline in trivago’s website traffic since the recent spike in cases, the state still tops the site compared with competing destinations including California (9%); Nevada (7%); Texas (7%); South Carolina (6%); Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia (at 3% each).

Ordinarily, Florida’s higher numbers would be nothing but good news. But in the “new normal” of the coronavirus era, the economic necessities of tourism must be balanced with larger issues of public health, said Scott Smith, a hospitality professor and director of graduate studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The state’s attraction to tourists also makes it more challenging to control the spread of coronavirus, especially at the time when the number of people in the state who have contracted the virus has skyrocketed.

“When you look at the economy, you really have to weigh out the risk versus reward or payoff,” Smith said. “We have acceptable risk in society all the time. This is a philosophical question: At what point are we willing to accept risk to get the economy going, to get people’s jobs back, to get back to a somewhat normal lifestyle?”

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In Florida, amid a record-setting surge in coronavirus cases, the level of risk is higher than it would be in some other parts of the country, said Dr. Norman Beatty, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine.

The level of risk in traveling “really depends on the amount of local transmission of the virus depending on where you are traveling,” Beatty said. “Some areas will be higher risk than others, so it depends on the status of the pandemic in that region.

“Right now, we do have in Florida community spread which is high, I would suggest. In this moment, the rate of infection is increasing and we have, I would say, uncontrolled transmission at this time. That is fair to say.”

That doesn’t mean that visitors can’t have a safe, enjoyable vacation, Beatty said.

“For now, going outside is likely the best way to enjoy time in Florida and minimize risk for contracting the virus,” he said. “We’re recommending activities outdoors where you can be safely in less contact with others, especially those you don’t know. It would be important to practice social distancing and wearing a face covering when you can, as well as bringing hand sanitizers and disinfectant.”

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’Safety is paramount’

As the pandemic has changed the way people look at travel, it also has changed the way tourism officials promote destinations to potential visitors.

In Daytona Beach, the push for visitors has essentially paused since the pandemic started affecting the state in late March, said Lori Campbell Baker, executive director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“While we continue to deliver a consistent message to visitors, it’s also a softer, more sensitive one that speaks to the fact that when the time is right for you to plan your vacation, the Daytona Beach area will be here for you,” Baker said.

The message also has been narrowed to focus on potential visitors within driving distance in Florida and neighboring states, she said. The CVB’s website also updates health information and answers questions that visitors might have about the pandemic.

“Safety is paramount and every traveler’s level of comfort is different,” Baker said. “For those that do decide to travel, we want them to visit responsibly.”

For the numerous destinations that Florida has to offer, the economic impact of the pandemic on tourism has been severe.

In April, average hotel occupancy for the month was down by 81% compared with the same month a year ago, to an anemic overall average of 14%. Tourism bed tax collections for that month fell by a staggering 79.1%, by far the biggest decline on record.

Year-to-date, the CVB, which relies on bed taxes for its budget, has lost more than $1.6 million in revenue, Baker said. In March, the organization laid off six staff members from its payroll and decided not to fill an open position. Those cuts represent a third of the organization’s staff.

In South Florida, the focus has been in building the trust of potential visitors that the destination is following recommendations of public health officials, said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, the official tourism organization for Palm Beach County.

“Before we can return to any sense of normalcy and continue our promotional efforts, trust and confidence that our industry has set a new, high bar for safety and sanitation must be established,” Pesquera said. “Our hospitality businesses have been fervently testing and refining protocols and implementing creative ways to meet guests’ new needs.”

On the Gulf Coast, Sarasota’s tourism visitation numbers are down 30% year-to-date, said Virginia Haley, president of the destination’s official tourism organization, Visit Sarasota.

“We were very strong coming into it, but now the numbers are dragging,” Haley said. “In the month of May, we had almost a 70% drop in visitation.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the organization’s focus has shifted from tourism promotion, she said.

“How we welcome visitors is closely coordinated with health officials and the county,” Haley said. “We’ve been overwhelmed with lots of questions from the public, from local businesses, and we’ve been getting answers from people and sharing information. There’s no message about, ‘Come here.’”

In the Panhandle, tourism has rebounded recently to exceed last year’s numbers, after evaporating to virtually nothing at the peak of the state’s pandemic-related shutdown, said David Demarest, director of marketing & communications for the Walton County Tourist Development Council.

There, tourism marketing also has been put on hold in favor of awareness messages related to health guidelines and coronavirus updates, Demarest said.

“While our state and our county both depend on tourism for the economic well-being of our residents, we believe that we must keep a focus on safety for both our locals and potential visitors,” Demarest said. “Likewise, we believe that safe travel has to be a partnership between the visitor and those who live and work in the destination – it takes the cooperation of both parties to make it possible, particularly in the current crisis.”

’A strong statement’

For travelers, safety and security always have been major factors in planning a vacation, said Mark Bonn, a tourism professor at Florida State University who has been involved in the industry for 40 years.

That focus has sharpened in the pandemic, he said.

“There are a lot of places with sun, sand and beaches and geographically attractive areas,” Bonn said. “But is it safe and where do I go if I get sick?”

When it comes to tourism promotion, officials should be wary of pushing for short-term business boosts this summer at the expense of serious long-term consequences, he said.

“Morally, my philosophy is that unless there’s a strict, proven method of being safe, it’s not acceptable to be trying to attract people to come to a destination,” Bonn said. “What if you open the doors and it becomes known as an epicenter for COVID? I worry what happens to a destination if this occurs.”

Although tourism websites statewide offer updates and information on traveling with COVID-19, visitor bureaus would be wise to go beyond such measures to provide a stronger statement on expectations for travelers to follow health guidelines, said Smith, the South Carolina professor.

“It needs to be just like advertising that you see for a drug, where you see the disclaimers,” Smith said.

“If I were in charge of a CVB, I would say something like, ‘Look, we’re open; you can come down and have a good time and if you follow our safety and health guidelines you’re more than welcome. If you don’t want to follow the guidelines, stay home.’ It needs to be a very strong statement.”

At the same time, Smith sees tourism as only one of many factors contributing to the spread of coronavirus. He points to other regional spikes in cases in areas without popular travel spots.

“If we were to turn off the tourism faucet 100% tomorrow for Florida, I still think we’d have problems with the spread,” he said. “It may not even be the predominant reason you are seeing the spike. It goes back to people not being responsible to stop the spread.”

Beatty, the UF disease expert, agrees that individual behavior is the pandemic’s wild card.

“It’s not the beach itself,” Beatty said, “it’s our human behavior while at the beach that puts us at most risk of contracting the virus.”