Lawmakers eye extending Visit Florida to 2031

Legislation will be considered during 2022 legislative session

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s tourism-marketing agency is getting Senate support to keep its doors open into the next decade.

Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairman Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, is sponsoring legislation to extend the life of Visit Florida, which has been leading efforts to draw tourists back to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have no doubt that compared to 49 other states, we are the shining star,” Hooper said after the Commerce and Tourism Committee received a presentation Monday from Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young.

“Not only some of the policies that were implemented by the governor and others, but Visit Florida, with what they were dealing with, to keep our economy like it is, I think it shows more than ever the importance of having that statewide agency attracting visitors from all over the world,” Hooper added.

Hooper is drafting legislation that would keep the agency, which relies on annual funding from the Legislature, operating through Oct. 1, 2031. The legislation will be considered during the 2022 legislative session, which starts in January.

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Visit Florida has faced opposition from House leaders in recent years and was slated, under law, to be eliminated on Oct. 1, 2020. Hooper during the 2020 session proposed a bill to keep Visit Florida operating until 2028, but lawmakers settled on an Oct. 1, 2023, “sunset” date. Without another extension, the agency would cease operating on that date.

Hooper said he already anticipates opposition from the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which has disparaged funding for Visit Florida as “corporate welfare.”

But Hooper and Young, a former lawmaker, said the 2031 date appears to be meeting receptive ears in the House.

“I feel sure that the House understands the importance of tourism and Visit Florida,” Young said. “I feel very happy with where we are right now.”

Visit Florida drew fire in the House for past spending that included $1 million for rapper Pitbull to market the state, $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team. House leaders also questioned the need to spend tax dollars on marketing a state filled with tourist attractions.

Backers of the agency argued, in part, that Visit Florida has helped market the state through times of negative media coverage about issues such as hurricanes, red tide and algae and diseases such as Zika and COVID-19.

Hooper’s new proposal doesn’t include a funding request, which will have to be handled as the Legislature pieces together a budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

Visit Florida received $80 million from the Legislature for the current year, which included $30 million that the state received through federal stimulus programs.

Young said a similar level of funding --- up from $50 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year --- would allow the agency to “continue the momentum that we have created.”

Young recently met with travel agents, tour operators and airline representatives in London in anticipation of federal COVID-19 restrictions being eased for international visitors.

Under the pending federal traveler plan, non-citizens visiting the United States will have to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure.

Calling international visitors vital to the state’s economy because they tend to spend more time and money than domestic travelers, Young said the federal change should spur end-of-year holiday travel.

“I’m not a betting woman and I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I will tell you that I feel very, very good about our position internationally when those borders open,” Young said. “We are going to see a lot of Brits and Germans and Canadians and Mexicans and Colombians and Brazilians coming to our state and spending money, starting in November.”

Travelers from other parts of the U.S. into Florida were up 6 percent in the first six months of this year compared to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But overseas travelers in the first six months of this year were just 31 percent of the total for the first half of 2019.

After Canada’s 3.62 million travelers to Florida in 2019, England was second at 1.522 million, followed by Brazil at 1.219 million, according to Visit Florida numbers.