ORLANDO, Fla. - Even though Hurricane Irma forced the closures of its theme parks and airports and filled its hotels with displaced evacuees, a record-setting 72 million tourists still flocked to the Orlando area last year, tourism officials said Thursday.
The 5 percent year-over-year increase in visitors was powered by domestic travelers, while visits from international travelers remained soft. With those numbers, Orlando held onto its title as the most visited destination in the United States.
"The success in Orlando is great, not just for this iconic destination, but for travel as a whole," said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, who was in Orlando for the announcement of the 2017 figures.
Tourism in Orlando, and other parts of Florida, shut down last September for almost a week during the preparations for and aftermath of Hurricane Irma on the peninsula. The area's theme parks closed for two days and planes stopped flying out of central Florida airports. Millions of coastal residents were ordered to evacuate, sending many of them inland to hotels in Orlando.
Despite the short-term closures, Irma didn't cause any widespread damage in central Florida, although the hurricane damaged other parts of the state, including the Florida Keys. After the hurricane, Visit Orlando, the area's tourism board, launched social media and publicity campaigns that showed central Florida was open for business.
Orlando's record number of visitors has been built on the continuous addition of new attractions and rides at the area's theme parks, said George Aguel, CEO of Visit Orlando.
The theme parks have been on a recent building spree.
Last year, Disney World opened up a new section of Animal Kingdom, Pandora-The World of Avatar, and Universal Orlando Resort opened a new water park, Volcano Bay. This year, Universal is opening a ride based on the "Fast and Furious" movie franchise and Disney World is opening another "Toy Story" ride. Next year will feature the openings of a "Star Wars" land at Disney World and a "Sesame Street" land at SeaWorld Orlando.
"We've learned from history that it's not enough to just build it and hope they come," Aguel said. "We work really hard to keep that messaging, marketing globally."
With a strong dollar and economic struggles in some of Orlando's key markets, international travel was soft last year. Nationwide, international travel was down for the year by almost 2 percent last September from the U.S.'s 20 biggest tourist-generating countries, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office in the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Domestically, Visit Orlando put an added emphasis on marketing to the northeast United States last year. Orlando International Airport last year became Florida's busiest airport.
"You just have a huge population base there ... and they come for a good length of time," Aguel said.
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