Florida lawmakers disagree on funding state's tourism agency

THE EVERGLADES, Fla. — On a balmy Monday morning, Elina Llamas sat in the second row of an airboat as it powered through the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. The 38-year-old from Chicago was packed into the boat with her mother, brother and about a dozen other tourists.

If it weren't for large-scale campaigns advertising Florida to the world, visitors would think the state only has amusement parks and beaches, she said.

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"There is so much more to see," Llamas said. She was showing her mother the Everglades.

Back on land, Ashley Wallack, 34, who was visiting from Philadelphia with her 7-year-old daughter, said she has seen state-funded commercials depicting Florida as a fun family destination but doesn't believe they have any influence on someone's decision to come. "Florida is a nice sunny place to come and visit," she explained.

Whether or not Florida needs its own in-house advertising agency is currently at the heart of a budget debate at the state capital.

Florida House leaders want to eliminate Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency that spends millions of dollars on marketing campaigns to lure visitors to the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he wants to continue funding the agency at $76 million, while the Senate initially proposed decreasing its budget to $50 million.

This week, the Senate and House reached a tentative agreement to provide Visit Florida only $19 million and allow the agency to expire in October. But the final budget agreement has not yet been reached and it remains possible Visit Florida could still survive before lawmakers adjourn.

The House's displeasure with Visit Florida dates back to 2015 when the agency's officials secretly inked a $1 million endorsement deal with rapper Pitbull, a move many viewed as reckless spending. Since then, the agency has been placed under new leadership and the House has moved to place spending restrictions on the agency and decrease its funding in past legislative sessions.

Republican Rep. Dane Eagle, who is House majority leader and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said funding the agency is a mismanagement of tax dollars and the state's reputation as a tourism destination is enough to entice travellers to visit Florida. "I think the state sells itself," he said.

Visit Florida's new president and CEO, former Republican lawmaker Dana Young, said the agency has played a vital role in the uptick of visitors the state has seen in recent years. According to Young, Florida is in fierce competition with other states and international destinations for tourism dollars.

"If we are not out there every single day doing what we do, they're going to go somewhere else," she said. "People are pretty fungible in terms of the decisions they make."

Visits to the state have increased by more than 58% per cent over a 15-year period, according to Visit Florida data. Young claims the visitation spark is a direct result of an increase in funding over the years.

More than 82 million people visited Florida in 2004 when the agency received $25.5 million from the state. With its current funding of $76 million, which Young called a "sweet spot," more than 126 million tourists visited Florida last year. About 86% of the visitors were from the U.S., while a combined 5 million came from Canada and the United Kingdom.

"The marketing is absolutely critical," said Young. "We are simply bringing people and their dollars to the state of Florida."

According to agency data, out-of-state visitors spent $112 billion in Florida in 2016.

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida Tax Watch, called the agency an "economic engine," saying Visit Florida plays a major role in funding education and public works.

For every dollar the state spent on Visit Florida's marketing efforts, it received $2.15 back in tax revenue, according the Florida's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Last October, Visit Florida launched a $9 million marketing campaign focused on areas devastated by Hurricane Michael and the recent red tide crisis. It also allocated nearly $2 million in grant funding to county tourist development councils in impacted areas.

Tim Schwartzman, 35, whose family owns Sawgrass Recreation Park, a small business that provides guests with guided airboat tours through the Everglades, said the agency has been an invaluable asset to their company.

For a fee of around $3,000, Schwartzman said the business receives a number of vital services from Visit Florida such as consolations, worldwide advertising, trade show exposure and access to international sales retreats to connect with potential partners and buyers. According to the Schwartzmans, their website receives around 40,000 visitors per year directly from Visit Florida's domain.

Although the business has some funds set aside for advertising, their reach is minuscule in comparison to the power of Visit Florida. "That's stuff we can't afford to on our own as small business," said Schwartzman, who employs 35 full-time and seven part-time workers.

Schwartzman said the agency especially came in handy for the business after Hurricane Wilma destroyed part of the park in 2005. He said costly repairs prevented them from spending on advertising. "Having that extra arm there to push your visibility further than you could on your own really helped bring us back into the fold again."

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Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and Curt Anderson in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.

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