JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Tourists continue to visit Florida in record numbers during a year in which two hurricanes hit the state and federal officials warned pregnant women away from Miami because of the Zika virus.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott visited the Jacksonville Zoo on Monday morning to announce that 85 million tourists visited the state during the first nine months of 2016.
State officials said that's the highest nine-month total ever and a 5.5 percent increase over last year.
The governor also announced a goal of getting another 30 million people to visit Florida from now until the end of the year.
"Jobs are still growing really rapidly in our state. We're beating Texas and all these other states, which is fun," Scott said. "Tourism is a big part of that. We’ve funded Visit Florida. The year before I got elected, we funded with less than $27 million. This last year or the year we're in, it's now $76 million."
Scott said in a statement the record numbers show how well Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm, is doing its job. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran has questioned continued funding of the organization.
The governor noted that record numbers of tourists visited the state despite the Zika outbreak, hurricanes and the tragic attack at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead.
During Monday's announcement, Visit Jacksonville also announced that more than 20 million tourists came to the River City in 2015, and the city is on track to surpass that record number this year.
"Jacksonville is kind of emerging now as one of those markets, and it's emerging for a number of reasons," said Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. "And that's because of what the tourists are now looking for."
That includes attractions like Jacksonville's beaches, the Jaguars, downtown development and the Jacksonville Zoo.
"We had a million visitations last year. It was a landmark year for us, and we think we offer a lot to the community," said Dan Maloney, deputy director of animal care and conservation.
All the more exciting for city leaders is knowing how Jacksonville tourism factors into the trend statewide.
The president and CEO of Visit Florida admitted that this has been a challenging year. But he said that when it came to making a pitch to visitors, it was about reminding people what makes Florida great in the first place.
"We all learn lessons from Disney. Always continue to improve the tourism product around the state of
Florida," Will Seccombe said. "I think we're going to do that. We're definitely going to overcome the hurricanes and storms and the other issues and challenges."