Visit Florida has had a rough go of it the last few years.
The state’s embattled public-private tourism marketing agency, under withering attacks from self-anointed fiscal conservatives, has lost half its funding and a third of its staff. And thus, the only agency with an exclusive mission to support a key pillar of the state’s economy finds itself on the legislative chopping block — again.
How’s that for good governance?
The reasoning: With tourism setting annual growth records over the past decade, fiscal watchdogs question Visit Florida’s effectiveness and its need to exist.
After all, who doesn’t already know that Florida is home to warm weather, miles of beaches, theme parks, outlet malls and golf courses?
“If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida’s budget cut in half, it begs the question: Is it necessary at all?” Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said in September.
That view is not only shortsighted, but premature.
Ending Visit Florida’s marketing support makes about as much sense as Coca-Cola eschewing millions of dollars in advertising because “Coke” is already the best-known soft-drink brand name in the world.
Florida’s success not withstanding, we are far from the only game in town when it comes to competing for valuable tourism dollars. The state needs every bit of help it can get to maintain and grow its competitive advantage. And spending $50 million a year on an industry that generates well north of $100 billion in yearly taxable spending is peanuts.
Thankfully, Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to get it. Pushing back against the fiscal hawks in his own party, the Republican governor maintains that $50 million in funding for Visit Florida in his proposed budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
It was DeSantis, in fact — with help from the Senate — who kept Oliva and company from ending Visit Florida in the last session.
Oliva followed his predecessor, former Speaker Richard Corcoran, in declaring war on Visit Florida. Corcoran in 2017 railed against the agency’s free-spending ways, which included an almost $2.9 million contract with an auto racing team called Visit Florida Racing and a $1 million promotional contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.
But strangely, the biggest argument against Visit Florida appears to be the state’s own tourism success. A record 127 million tourists visited the state in 2018, another banner year in a string of record years since the Great Recession.
In the first nine months of this year, 101 million people visited the Sunshine State, a 3.7 percent increase over the first three months of 2018 — and, yes, another record — according to estimates Visit Florida recently released.
But those figures come with a warning: That trend could be ending.
While a record 31.6 million people visited the Sunshine State in this year’s third quarter, that was only 1.2% better than the same quarter last year — the smallest increase since 2010.
Oliva, in a statement after DeSantis released his spending plan, didn’t specifically address Visit Florida. We hope that’s a good sign.
This guest editorial was originally published by the Palm Beach Post, a sister newspaper within Gannett.