Published On: Fri, May 7th, 2021

Tourism in Palm Beaches returning to normal after pandemic nosedive

By: Dale King

The tourism industry in Palm Beach County was running hot and growing fast before it hit the COVID-19 brick wall just over a year ago, the county’s leisure industry boss told the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce in a “virtual” address Tuesday.

“We had a great track record,” said Jorge Pesquera, CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches since 2007. “In the last decade, tourism increased from four million to eight million visitors to Palm Beach County a year. We even outpaced the state. Actually, tourism in the county increased 92% since 2014.”

The agency’s CEO said Discover the Palm Beaches is the official tourism marketing corporation contracted to work with the county. “Our mission is to grow the tourism economy.”

The organization uses a third of the $54 million taken in by the state from the tax on hotel/motel rooms – commonly called the “Bed Tax” – to fund its activities.

“Tourism,” he noted, “is a big deal in Florida. It represents 12 percent of the gross domestic product.  It has an eight-million-dollar impact on the county. The industry employs 70,000 people and generates $100 million in local taxes.”

The bottom fell out in March of 2020, he said, when coronavirus dug its heels into travel and leisure plans locally and globally. “Air travel halted, hotel occupancy dropped to 20% in the county, even less in south county.”

“We’ve had a long and difficult fall and winter,” Pesquera told listeners whose faces were spread across computer screens. “We lost half the jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry. Arrivals at Palm Beach International Airport fell to a trickle in April and May of 2020.”

Tourism officials gave up on marketing for a time, he said, and pivoted their attention to “a health and safety focus. We started to do town hall meetings to regain the public’s trust.”

Adopting the pledge of “mask, distance and sanitize,” the vacation business from Boca to Jupiter shifted its focus to surviving and reviving. Pesquera said the industry started promoting both vaccinations and staycations.

“We adopted the phrase, ‘Don’t miss your shot,” he said, referring to vaccine inoculations. “We encouraged people to continue going to restaurants, but to purchase food to take out so those dining locations could stay in business.”

As the pandemic eased, officials reached out with ideas for staycations in South Florida and other cities.   A campaign that ran late last year from Black Friday through the New Year carefully encouraged shoppers to take advantage of holiday shopping while paying attention to their own health and safety.

At the same time, the federally-funded CARES Act that provided sustaining cash to financially troubled businesses “provided an injection of non-Bed Tax money to the county.”  Pesquera said the Palm Beaches parlayed $1.8 million in federal assistance bucks into $177 million in monetary returns.

At one point, facing a surge in the number of COVID cases, tourism officials took a more sensitive approach to promoting outdoor activities, honing in on the warm winter weather in Florida as a draw to some of the colder northern climes.

Billboards went up in New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York suggesting that snowbound folks begin “planning your winter escape” in sunny Florida.

Two of Pesquera’s colleagues offered a broader view of South Florida tourism. “Excitement is coming back,” said Gustav Weibull, noting that hotel room occupancy is back around the 75% mark.  International travel to Florida hit 703,030 in 2019, but fell to less than half that, 309,820, the following year. 

Those numbers are also beginning to rise again.

Weibull said Canada sends the most visitors to America during the year followed by Brazil, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Colombia, Germany and Mexico.  Efforts are now under way, he said, to smooth out the seasonal nature of Canadian visitation, which tends to be high in winter and low in summer.

Another of Pesquera’s colleagues, Erick Garnica, told how international visitors impact the local economy. He said foreign travelers bring $431 million into Palm Beach County annually — $145 million of that just for hotel stays.

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