Destination marketer Visit Florida could find itself on the chopping block — again. Its perilous future is a symptom of what some call the "weaponization of travel" in political funding battles.
Another legislative session on the horizon means another funding battle for the beleaguered destination marketer Visit Florida.
Visit Florida’s CEO Dana Young appealed to members of the state’s Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Oct. 15 to be aware of the risks of lowering or eliminating the state’s tourism funding, especially with a potential economic downturn on the horizon.
She cited a September report from the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research that noted that “tourism-related revenue losses pose the greatest potential risk to the economic outlook” of Florida. Young also emphasized the conclusion drawn by the state legislature’s chief economist in the report, saying “the tourism sector is over-performing and effectively propping up the weaker areas on Florida economy.”
Nevertheless, Visit Florida has been in survival mode since 2017, when it came under fire for bloated contracts with celebrities and other self-inflicted missteps. Dana Young took over as CEO in January of this year, and in April, state lawmakers approved a $50 million dollar budget — down from a previous $76 million. However, that stopgap funding will expire at the end of June 2020, which means reauthorization is an existential — and imminent — question.
State Governor Ron DeSantis has asked state lawmakers to approve a $50 million budget for next year. But tourism officials are now concerned that the next state legislative session, which will begin in January, could bring renewed efforts to reduce funding further or even eliminate the agency, particularly coming from the house chamber. Visit Florida is hoping for a reauthorization bill to pass both chambers, ensuring its existence for the next eight years.
In a state where tourism is “the top economic driver,” as Young put it during her presentation, it seems counterintuitive that tourism officials must heavily lobby lawmakers on the necessity of funding tourism marketing. Florida reported a record-breaking number of visitors in the first six months of 2019, with 69.7 million travelers, a 5.2 percent year-on-year increase. But despite that success — or perhaps, because of it — some lawmakers have expressed that they don’t see the need for a promotional budget.
“If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida’s budget cut in half, it begs the question, is it necessary at all?” republican House Speaker Jose Oliva, was quoted as saying in September, representing a common viewpoint from tourism-funding skeptics.
The political nature of tourism funding is certainly not unique to Florida; indeed, it’s particularly common in the U.S. at large. Destinations International is a membership organization for destination marketers that, as part of its work, helps detect where tourism funding may be imperilled based on the language politicians and public interest groups use. (Visit Florida is a member).
The group’s CEO Don Welsh told Skift that he sees both Visit Florida’s position — as well as the recent axing of much-adored tourism ad campaign Pure Michigan — as part of a broader phenomenon of the “weaponization of travel,” or budget cuts which hone in on travel as an easy target.
“I think most lawmakers in Florida understand the value and the benefit of having a robust tourism economy and what it does for the state,” Welsh told Skift. “What I think troubles us in the state of Florida is the belief by a lot of lawmakers that the entire responsibility for an industry that generates [billions of dollars] per year can be placed on the back of large corporations like Disney and Universal. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not correct.”
Put another way: You can’t have the ample benefits that tourism brings without spending some public sector money on it — even if your state is an established tourism powerhouse with big tourist attractions. This logic applies not only to marketing, Welsh notes, but also to crisis management. In a state like Florida, where hurricanes and red tides are common, that’s especially true. Young mentioned in her speech that Visit Florida had to spent $9 million on crisis response in the last fiscal year, despite only budgeting $1 million for it. She said that same level of response would be difficult to fund with the current budget level.
“Who is going to take responsibility to make travelers aware of information about these [events]?” Welsh said. “We see countless times that is the role and responsibility of the destination organization … you can’t pin that responsibility on the private sector to do that.”
Welsh draws the comparison of California — a state similar in size, scope, and tourism offering to Florida — which has a tourism marketing budget of $120 million. “California understands that once you build it, you have to invest in it,” Welsh said.
Visit Florida can only hope that state lawmakers will come to the same conclusion.
During a visit to New York City on Tuesday night, Visit Florida officials made no mention of the threat to funding. Instead, they pitched bringing together the lesser-known areas of the state, like Tallahassee, Sarasota, and Deston, to promote more tourism to get visitors out of their comfort zones. “It’s about continuing to promote the state but showing some of the hidden gems that we have and keeping people interested who maybe thought ‘we’ve already done Florida, I want to go somewhere else’,” said Meagan Dougherty, director of public relations for Visit Florida.
Tourism officials are hoping too, that their funding don’t go somewhere else as well.
—Skift intern Jasmine Ganaishlal contributed to this report.
Update: This story was updated to reflect that tourism contributes billions of dollars per year to Florida’s economy, not millions.
Photo credit: Before a storm in Florida's Key Biscayne. Joiseyshowaa / Flickr