Visit Florida Keeps Tourism Goal After Irma

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida’s top tourism marketer remains focused on attracting 120 million visitors this year, even after Hurricane Irma closed the Florida Keys for nearly a month and as recovery continues along both coasts.

Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson said Wednesday he isn’t backing off the 120-million tourist goal set at the start of the year by Gov. Rick Scott, though an economic impact study of the storm is underway.

“I’m driving towards that goal every day, I’m focused like a radar,” Lawson told reporters after speaking to the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee.

“I’m driving hard to hit that 120 (million),” Lawson added. “You can’t back off. You can’t back off. That’s why we’re again being aggressive, sending a message, using social media, using traditional media, sending a message across the country and, also, the world that we’re open.”

The tourism agency has begun a $5 million post-storm marketing campaign to advise people that Florida’s tourism destinations and beaches quickly reopened.

With tourism accounting for an estimated 1.4 million jobs in Florida, Lawson joined Scott in Key West on Oct. 4 to try to drive home the point that the Keys were open for business.

But not all lodging and tourist facilities are operating normally in the area, with the recovery ongoing in parts of Marathon and the Lower Keys.

The Islamorada Resort Company has estimated that it may take up to six months to stagger the reopening of its four resorts.

Before the storm, the state estimated that 60.7 million people had traveled to Florida. The number indicated Florida was 4.1 percent ahead of the 2016 pace, when nearly 113 million people visited the Sunshine State and spent an estimated $109 billion.

The Keys are a big part of the tourism industry, with the industry producing about $120 million a year in sales taxes for the state, according to Monroe County’s Tourist Development Council.

Lawson told the House panel that if there any good news, it’s that Irma hit during the Labor Day-to-Thanksgiving window, which is when kids have returned to school and not as many parents are traveling.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in Cudjoe Key in Monroe County before making a second landfall in Marco Island and then plowing up the peninsula.

Lawson, who traveled from Miami to Key West last week, acknowledged that there was a slowdown in people coming to Florida after Irma but said it is returning to normal.

“It was flowing, people were there,” Lawson said of his visit to Key West. “It’s going to take time for it to get back to 100 percent, but it’s coming back.”

Lawson said preliminary findings from a firm hired to review the economic impact of the storm may be ready in November.

“In my bones there’s an impact, the actual impact I cannot say concretely,” Lawson said.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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