Sunshine State Tourism Shines So Far in 2024

Sunshine State Tourism Shines So Far in 2024

White sandy beaches and sunshine have long attracted visitors to Florida, but in an era of high inflation and economic uncertainty, competition in the travel and tourism industry has never been higher. For St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties, tourism development is not only a major goal, it is a prime economic driver.

Amy Lukasik

In Flagler, Tourism Director Amy Lukasik said the first quarter of 2024 has been more or less holding steady.

“We had two decent months and one month where we saw a 10% drop,” she said. “This was primarily due to a loss in hotel occupancy. Vacation rentals are still for the most part, holding their own even with an increase in available properties which means more inventory is online and available.”

Lukasik said inflation concerns have had some impact, according to industry partners.

“The most common theme I am currently hearing is that the booking window is much shorter right now (45 days or less) and in some cases people are shortening their trips by a day or so,” she said.

That is borne out by tourist activity in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2023, with bed tax collections down 2.5%, Lukasik said.

While some areas around the country are still feeling the after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lukasik said the recovery was much quicker in Flagler County.

“Even though travel is completely ‘open’, there seems to be some larger cities around the country that are definitely having to play catch-up from having such tight restrictions for much longer than some other states,” she said. “Flagler County rebounded rather quickly with only four months of being down in bed tax collections. The biggest lingering effect is still the on-going workforce challenges in the industry. This is a national problem to say the least.”

Overall, Lukasik said tourism across the Sunshine State is returning to normal.

“One thing that I think it’s important to understand is that travel in the state of Florida has started to normalize again,” she said. “The record-breaking numbers that so many businesses saw the past couple of years was the effect of pent up demand and travelers having limited choices on where to vacation. We had limited competition. Now the entire world is open and now Europe seems to be getting a big piece of the pie.”

Lori Campbell Baker

The story is much the same in Volusia County, according to Lori Campbell Baker, executive director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The first quarter of 2024, which is quarter 2 of our fiscal year, has been pretty solid,” she said. “We’re trending right about where we thought we would be.”

Campbell Baker said despite the challenges for tourist destinations from inflation pressures and economic concerns, the CVB is working hard to highlight the area to visitors.

“We know that there are lots of factors out there, including inflation, gas prices, other areas’ tourism marketing efforts,” she said. “We use all of our resources to market against these factors, and to gain market share and visitation.”

As for post-pandemic issues, the story is generally positive.

“We’ve rebounded well from the pandemic.,”: Campbell Baker said. “With its wide-open green spaces and beautiful beaches, our destination was well poised to host visitors during and after the height of the pandemic. And while our 2024 totals are moderate in comparison to the past few years, we are still trending well over our pre-pandemic levels.”

In St. Johns County, Tourism and Cultural Development Director Tera Meeks said so far the first quarter of 2024 is following the pattern of growth set down last year.

“FY24 which started on Oct, 1, 2023, has seen about 5% growth above the prior year,” she said. “The first quarter of the calendar year seems to uphold that overall pattern of a small amount of growth over the prior year.”

In terms of any lingering effects from the pandemic, Meeks said the county has seen strong growth since 2019.

“Tourism in St. Johns County and generally in the greater Florida area has grown substantially since fiscal year 2019, which was the last full fiscal year prior to Covid,” she said. “St. Johns County’s per penny tourist development tax revenue collections were $2.96 million in fiscal 2019 and grew to $4.64 million in fiscal 2023. That is more than a 50% increase in St. Johns County TDT collections since 2019.”

On the inflation front, Meeks said it is a topic in the industry.

“I think inflation is a concern on everyone’s mind these days and certainly there has been some discussion about the slowing growth in the tourism industry,” she said. “The discussion has largely involved the idea that we need to increase marketing efforts in future years.”