Visit Florida: Maintaining state money key to 100 million tourists

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Backed by record state funding and spending on marketing, Florida might top 100 million visitors this year.

The growth in visitors would mean a boost to jobs and Florida's economy, the state's top tourism official said.

Now it's up to the governor and state lawmakers to decide if the higher numbers are worthwhile as a new budget process gets underway.

Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, said Monday after addressing the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee that it's too early to toss around funding figures for next year.

But at the same time, Seccombe said the current level of funding is starting to pay off.

"There is a point of diminishing returns in marketing, but we're not there yet," Seccombe said. "The worst thing that could happen is to get this momentum and then go back. We've got to make sure we maintain what we've got."

The Legislature approved a $9.5 million increase in Visit Florida funding during the 2013 session, upping the annual allocation to $63.5 million.

The money is in addition to $110.9 million in private contributions to Visit Florida.

Of the money, $156.4 million goes into marketing.

Staffing and general costs come to about $5.1 million.

The rest goes to meetings, events, Welcome Center operations and industry relations.

Seccombe didn't directly address funding levels for next year as he gave an overview of the state's tourism-arm to the committee.

The increase in state funding came before Gov. Rick Scott set a goal this summer for the state to attract 100 million visitors.

Scott had actually proposed a larger funding increase, pitching a $75 million number before the 2013 session.

Visit Florida has estimated that the state had 91.4 million visitors last year, of which 77.6 million were domestic visitors. The overall total was a 4.1 million increase from 2011.

At the half-way mark this year, the pace was a little under 100 million, with Florida attracting an estimated 49.6 million in the first six months of 2013, according to Visit Florida.

The 2012 visitors spent about $67.2 billion, generating 23 percent of the state's sales-tax revenue, according to a Florida TaxWatch study that suggested the additional money would be needed to reach the 100 million benchmark.

To try to reach Scott's visitor goal, the state has been marketing itself as a year-round destination rather than just a warm-weather winter playground. Also, while focusing on attracting more people from traditional locales --- New York, Boston, Atlanta and Chicago --- ads are being increased in markets west of the Mississippi and overseas. 

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