Tourists search out their favorite Florida

Visitors toss chunks of meat to alligators during Adventure Hour on the backside of the breeding marsh at Gatorland in Orlando.

Florida’s famous theme parks aren’t the only things feeding the beast that is the state’s thriving tourism industry.

The state’s history, culture, environment and geography give it advantages in attracting people for an eclectic range of tourism specialties.

In 2018, 126 million visitors came to Florida, 45 million more than a decade earlier, according to Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer.

Developing tourism niches is important for the state because not everyone wants to visit Florida for the obvious reasons like theme parks and beaches.

An increasing number of people — especially younger generations — value more experience-based tourism, which is fueling growing interest in certain activities, said Ady Milman, a professor and researcher at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

“People want something different,” he said. “I’ve been on Caribbean cruises many times; it’s the same thing every time. So I decide I’m not going on the cruise for the destination, I go for the journey.”

Greater attention on niche tourism, in his view, may give consumers more knowledge of what a given destination offers, from its entertainment spots to state parks.

Visit Florida’s most recent survey of out-of-state and international travelers’ preferences, conducted in 2017, showed 43% of out-of-state travelers come to Florida for the beach, 33% for the food, 31% for visiting friends or relatives, 29% for shopping and 16% for touring and sightseeing.

This year Workman Travel & Tour in The Villages offered shuttles to niche destinations and events that sold out. They included the Daytona 500, a performance of “Hamilton” at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, and the Florida Strawberry Festival, which featured a Willie Nelson concert that evening, in Plant City.

The interest comes not only from Villagers, but from out-of-state tourists — not limited to but including people visiting family and friends in The Villages, said Emily Workman Crismore, marketing director for Workman Travel & Tour.

Other examples of the state’s growing success in niche tourism include cities like Miami and Orlando welcoming international and out-of-state patients every year looking for state-of-the-art medical care; visitors being drawn to the state’s magnificent churches, especially in St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement; Central Florida’s blossoming and eclectic food scene; and festivals and venues across the state that host entertainers and art from all over the world.

Florida also is home to state parks that include some of the nation’s best biking trails.

Florida’s award-winning beaches and opportunities to see diverse and rare types of wildlife are what draw most people to Florida’s ecotourism spots, said Scott Bartle, Heathrow and Daytona area field manager with AAA, the Auto Club Group.

It’s as much a destination for birders and wildlife watchers as it is for people who wish to swim in clear blue waters without having to travel to the Caribbean, he said.

“You can get in your car and go to Destin and get a beautiful blue ocean that’s like the Caribbean,” Bartle said. “You can get that feeling being in the United States.”

The natural world helps augment Florida’s sports tourism scene, which includes about 1,100 golf courses, 1,350 miles of coastline for saltwater fishing and 7,700 lakes for freshwater fishing, according to Visit Florida. The state is home to the Daytona International Speedway, and is frequently referred to as the world’s fishing and golf capitals.

People traveling to Florida may even find state-of-the-art golf courses hidden in undeveloped natural areas, such as the Streamsong Resort in Polk County, Bartle said.

“You’re out in the middle of mangroves with bald eagles and ospreys, deer and foxes,” he said. “It’s really tranquil out there, and you would have never thought it was there.”

He thinks Florida tourism will only increase because of the niche specialties that encourage tourism beyond the theme parks.

“It would be hard to say we have to do anything additional to draw people,” he said. “We’re already doing it.”

Crismore sees the contrast between the obvious tourist destinations and Florida’s natural and cultural assets as a key to niche tourism thriving here.

“Florida is such a unique state,” she said. “We have the tourism/Disney side, and then there’s also the Old Florida beauty with the springs, the lakes and the nature Florida has to offer. There’s so many things you can see within two hours of The Villages. Both sides of the coast offer unique things in their own way.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.