Florida sets record tourism numbers

Florida saw a record number of visitors in 2022 who came to experience the state’s attractions, both man-made and natural. According to the Florida State Parks Foundation, the state’s trails and parks saw more than 32 million visitors last year. 

When it comes to its status as a vacation destination, Florida continues to reign supreme.

An estimated 137.6 million people decided to visit the state last year, according to recent numbers from Visit Florida. The record number represents a 12.9% increase from 2021, and a 5% rise from 2019 — the last year before the pandemic hit. The numbers are the latest bit of rosy news for the state’s tourism industry, which continues to attract more and more visitors every year.

The high numbers aren’t surprising, said Sergio Alvarez, assistant professor with the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. You can feel it if you live here.

“I guess in a way you have to be fair to the governor and his strategy to open the state aggressively after the pandemic,” Alvarez said.

Florida never saw big declines like Hawaii did after lockdown. 

“Here, we never got to that point,” he said. 

During the height of the pandemic, the number of visitors to Florida did decline drastically. In 2020, the state only saw about 79.4 million visitors, down from about 131.1 million in 2019. 

However, after that 39.4% decrease, the numbers shot back up in 2021 when about 121.8 million visitors rushed to the Sunshine State. 

The October to December period in 2022, when 33.2 million people visited, actually represented the sixth quarter in a row where visitor numbers exceeded pre-pandemic tourism levels, according to a press release. 

“We could not be more excited with the incredibly impressive record-breaking visitation seen in 2022,” said Dana Young, Visit Florida president and CEO, in a statement. “Quarter after quarter, Florida continues to dominate the travel market and our competition, which could not be achieved without the hard work of our local tourism partners.”

And while many visitors made their way to the state’s famous theme parks last year, people also made time for Florida’s trails and state parks. The parks and trails saw more than 32 million visitors last year, according to the Florida State Parks Foundation. 

And all the state’s visitors are generating money for Florida as well as local businesses. For example, last year saw  about $42.8 billion spent in Florida in the category that included hotels, rooming houses and apartments, according to the Florida Department of Revenue. 

The state’s quick bounce-back says its destination images is as strong as ever, Alvarez said. He said he thinks some people were concerned that, during the pandemic, the number of COVID cases would permanently damage the state’s image as a safe, family destination. 

“And I think the data proved that that hasn’t happened, that Florida’s reputation remains intact and has perhaps even been strengthened in a way, if we judge by the numbers of tourists,” Alvarez said. 

He thinks the pandemic might have made some people wary to travel internationally because of different requirements. There also is the geopolitical situation, and some people may be cautious about international air traffic. 

All of that is good news for domestic destinations like Florida. 

“We have so many people who have money to spend in essence and who want to spend this money in travel, people who have realized that buying stuff is not really as rewarding as having these experiences you have when you travel with your family with you friends,” Alvarez said. 

As for international tourism, the numbers aren’t quite back to 2019 levels, but they are rising.

Florida has all the things people dream about: amazing water, beautiful beaches and man-made attractions, Alvarez said. 

In terms of those man-made attractions, some of the state’s theme parks added new rides to attract guests last year. SeaWorld Orlando opened its Ice Breaker coaster in February, while Walt Disney World launched Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in May. 

Last year also marked a continuation of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebrations, which includes special shows and merchandise. 

“When they have special events or these types of memorials or commemorations, these events bring in people,” Alvarez said. “There’s a load of Disney fans around the United States. For them it’s not so much if they’re doing a Disney vacation this year, but when they’re doing a Disney vacation. So some of these events may catch their attention and they may say ‘I’m going to go to that event.’” 

That momentum could carry into next year, since Disney’s 50th anniversary celebration lasts until next month. The company also is celebrating its 100th overall anniversary this year. 

The momentum goes for other areas of tourism as well. The first quarter of 2023 is wrapping up soon, a period which includes spring break in March. 

Last year during this time, the state saw a 38% increase in visitors compared to 2021. 

And Alvarez said it’s hard to beat Florida in terms of attractiveness.  

Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.