TALLAHASSEE – Florida tourism leaders continue to worry about lagging international visitors as the industry awaits tourism figures for the final three months of 2022.
While Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, boasts that Florida is the most popular U.S. destination for international travelers based on market share, the number of international visitors to the state and nation remains far below pre-pandemic totals.
Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young last week expressed concern that global inflation and extended visa processing times could affect final 2022 numbers and 2023 tourism.
“The waiting time for a visa interview in Mexico City is 693 days. In Lima, Peru, it’s 831 days,” Young told Visit Florida executive committee members. “This is absolutely ridiculous and is impacting our international visit.”
The US Travel Association said steps taken by the US State Department to reduce wait times for visitor visas have made “substantial progress”, with the global average below 150 days for the first time since 2021.
In a statement posted online, the US State Department said the delay stemmed from a combination of “delayed demand” for visas as countries lifted COVID-19 restrictions mixed with regular seasonal demand.
But as Young noted, wait times in a number of nations remain above average, even amid steps like opening embassies and consulates on Saturdays for visa processing and increased hiring of U.S. State Service officials to help with visa paperwork .
India on January 19 had a waiting period of 577 days, down from 999 days in mid-December.
“Wait times are still too high despite notable improvements in countries like India,” US Travel Association President and CEO Jeff Freeman said in a statement. “While we appreciate the State Department’s efforts, much work remains to reduce interview wait times to an acceptable level.”
Young said Florida’s international tourism numbers also face a “negative impact” because the Biden administration extended until April 8 the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for foreign air travelers coming to the United States. The claim was scheduled to end on January 8.
Florida is also working to recover business travel and meetings as competition increases, Young said.
“Increasing competition from other non-marketing global destinations during the pandemic is something we are seeing,” Young said.
When third-quarter tourism numbers were released in November, Florida’s estimated 32.645 million travelers represented an 8 percent increase from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic largely shut down the key tourism industry. Of these, domestic travelers increased by 11.4%, while overseas visitors decreased by 30%.
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The US Travel Association estimated that international travel to the US is 34% below pre-pandemic levels.
Visit Florida, which has increased its marketing to offset negative media coverage of issues like hurricanes, red tides and COVID-19, received $50 million in state funding this year. It is seeking $100 million in the next fiscal year, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Young said Visit Florida is engaged in “phase 2” of its response to Hurricane Ian. The Category 4 hurricane made landfall on September 28 in Southwest Florida and caused extensive damage as it crossed the state.
“We launched phase 1 on October 8. This was a quick response focused on unaffected areas of the state to show that Florida is still open for business,” Young said. “We have deployed video crews across the state in unaffected areas so they can capture live, dated footage of people enjoying the Florida sun. This was to combat the $165 million in negative earned media we received in about three weeks and dispel the misconception that Florida as a whole state was destroyed.
Tourism data for the fourth quarter and for 2022 is expected to be released in mid-February.
By Jim Turner