Florida travel industry sees sun on the horizon

People walk along the water at sunrise at Pensacola Beach. Florida’s outdoor activities have been a draw for tourists trying to vacation safely.

The sun comes up as ocean waves slap against the sand, light emerging from the darkness on the shores of the beach. This relaxing scene still occurs in Florida, and still draws people to the Sunshine State, even though a lot has changed about traveling here since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida may still have a long way to go before pre-pandemic tourism levels return, but a few signs of the sun emerging from the darkness offer glimpses of hope. Statewide work to accelerate tourism recovery is bearing some fruit, with Thanksgiving and Christmas proving busy in Florida — especially for the airline industry. And the outlook for travel in 2021 suggests people will start traveling again as the COVID-19 vaccination effort takes greater shape. A recent coronavirus travel sentiment survey from Destination Analysts, which provides market research data to the U.S. Travel Association, found 59% of travelers are optimistic that COVID-19 vaccine developments offer hope for a sense of normalcy within the next six months.

The same survey found 51% think the vaccines will make it safer to travel.

And while many travelers remain cautious of booking vacations, the holidays offered a much-needed bright spot for the tourism industry.

Orlando International Airport announced on Jan. 8 that not only was air traffic stronger than expected during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, but it also operated as the busiest airport in the country for 18 of the holiday period’s 21 days.

While still down year-over-year from 2019, the nearly 900,000 passengers that flew during that time surpassed the airport’s projection of 775,000 passengers, said Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

That bustling activity extended to airport shuttles to and from Orlando International Airport and The Villages.

Prior to the pandemic, Workman Transportation & Travel operated 16 shuttles a day. Nowadays, they’re only operating nine.

However, the company saw its highest activity since the start of the pandemic during the Christmas holiday period, owner Linda Workman said. Its private car service also grew in popularity as customers sought safer and more socially-distant transportation options between the airport and The Villages.

Drawing Local, Regional Visitors

When Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer, sought to keep tourism alive through the pandemic, it launched its first pandemic-era marketing campaign with travelers’ preferences in mind.

That preference, experts suggested, was for closer to home experiences and things that can be done outdoors.

So Visit Florida started by encouraging in-state travel beyond theme parks and beaches, promoting outdoor experiences that are favorable for social distancing like state parks, golf and fishing.

“We have rebounded from crises before, and we will rebound from COVID-19,” Dana Young, CEO of Visit Florida, said in a news conference about the in-state tourism push.

Since October, Visit Florida expanded its outreach to attract regional visitors, people who are willing to travel from within 700 miles of the state.

Its message was Florida offers safe vacation experiences travelers can enjoy any time of the year.

“While the pandemic is not over, and safety remains paramount, we encourage Floridians to venture out of their homes to enjoy everything our beautiful state has to offer,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement to the press.

Florida’s focus on people who are traveling closer to home balances the public’s desire to travel with a hesitancy to venture too far from home, especially in settings with large crowds, said Deborah Breiter Terry, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

“People like to travel,” she said. “They feel the need to get away from the craziness of the pandemic. They need something to look forward to, some leisure time (and) some recreation. And these opportunities are literally available in their backyard.”

The emphasis on outdoor experiences fits with consumer travel trends. TripAdvisor found in a seasonal travel report issued last year that 61% of U.S. travelers were considering outdoor or nature trips for their vacations.

These destinations are favorable for social distancing because they’re more spaced out, Breiter Terry said.

“Being outdoors in the fresh air is good for the immune system, and it lends itself to distancing as opposed to being in an enclosed spot,” she said.

Convincing people that Florida was open for vacations proved essential to keeping tourism-related businesses afloat.

In a statement issued last month, Visit Florida noted the total number of visits to Florida was down 34% from January to September 2020. Its research found hotel revenue declined by more than $6.5 billion in that same period.

There’s cautious optimism for the new year, though.

A recent forecast from the U.S. Travel Association showed travel spending is likely to increase 23.2% to $760 billion in 2021, gradually increasing to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. The association’s data found travel spending in the U.S. was $617 billion in 2020, down 45% from the year prior.

When Will People Travel Again?

While there’s industry-wide optimism for travel to make a comeback, people must first be willing to travel.

More than half of Americans are willing.

About 63% of U.S. travelers indicated they plan to travel within the next six months, according to the most recent polling from ADARA, a travel data consulting firm. Visit Florida is using that data to track travel intent trends.

Still, industry experts think COVID-19 will remain a factor in people’s travel plans until infections and deaths subside and, depending on the their destination, places relax their quarantine guidelines.

Visit Florida is still urging visitors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of maintaining a distance of at least six feet from people, avoiding gathering in groups, staying out of crowded places and wearing masks when around others.

Its website linked to resources from each of Florida’s counties on local COVID-19 regulations, as well as the status on the coastal counties’ open beaches.

Also linked were resources from major attractions like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts on what to expect before visiting Orlando’s theme parks. The parks reopened this summer in a limited capacity, and face masks and temperature checks were required for entry.

Despite the emphasis on safety, now may be too early for some local travelers to take vacations, particularly those involving air travel.

Robert Paluszak, president of The Villages Worldwide Foreign Travel Club, said he wasn’t aware of any club members who had plans to travel by airplane in 2021.

“The sentiment for airplane travel (right now) is pretty low,” he said.

Yet Paluszak, of the Village of Mallory Square, also said he doesn’t know of anyone who was infected as a result of air travel.

“I do know three or four snowbirds who flew back North for the summer,” he said. “They took precautions with masks and hand sanitizer and I know no one who got sick.”

Some travelers are heeding the advice of Visit Florida’s initial tourism recovery marketing and staying within the state.

That includes people like Paluszak’s aunt, Joan Saulpaugh of Village La Reynalda,, who are taking in Florida’s scenery before they’re ready to travel farther.

Saulpaugh frequently visits Daytona Beach. Following a September trip there, she said what she likes about the Atlantic coast beach city is its abundant fishing piers and restaurants along the water.

She said she appreciated the ability to social distance while traveling outdoors, especially during sunrise at the beach.

Travelers elsewhere appear to be following her lead, which is partly helping hotel booking in Florida tourist spots with outdoor destinations.

TripAdvisor’s most recent travel index showed four Florida cities among their top 10 most popular travel spots based on its booking data: Key Largo at No. 1, Key West at No. 3, Naples at No. 5, Clearwater at No. 6 and St. Pete Beach at No. 10.

Key Largo and Key West were among only four cities Tripadvisor tracked that had a year-over-year increase.

Typically, travel providers’ lists of most booked destinations favor large cities. But as COVID-19 caused travelers to rethink their travel approaches, they’re preferring smaller cities abundant in outdoor experiences, such as beaches and parks, that are more favorable for social distancing.

“The pandemic has forced travelers to be creative and explore new destinations in ways they may not have considered previously,” Christopher Hsi, Tripadvisor’s lead analyst for consumer market research, said in a statement. “... We’re seeing a rise in destinations where travelers can relax and rejuvenate, as opposed to the busy hustle and bustle of popular cities.”

And Florida’s post-pandemic advantage in tourism recovery comes from its abundance of such places, Breiter Terry said.

“I just think it’s important that people get out to do some sort of recreation and Florida is a great place for that,” she said. “It’s a great idea to promote locally.”

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