By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — As Florida stands ready to dole out $74 million to promote Sunshine State tourism, many around the state are wondering if it’s a wise use of public resources.
One thing’s for sure. Visit Florida, the state’s official marketing organization, will see a windfall.
But Roman Estomas isn’t impressed at all.
He ferries tourists between Miami International Airport and Coral Gables’ Hyatt Hotel, among others.
“We are the ones whose lives are on the line when a criminal rides in our car, or when we burn up from the heat … but we are the last one on the totem pole in this town,” Estomas said.
The record-setting tourism budget approved by state lawmakers is a 700-percent increase over the 2007-2008 budgets, when the state earmarked a paltry $13.5 million to promote the Sunshine State. It’s still less than the $100 million Gov. Rick Scott wanted.
Florida Watchdog attempted to obtain a breakdown on how the cash will be spent, but officials figures weren’t immediately available.
However, the Visit Florida’s website says $5 million is earmarked to building a medical tourism sector, and $1.3 million will go to promote the Sunshine State to veterans and active-duty military.
Another $19 million will be used to target western states, and $16.6 million will go toward hooking new travelers through global marketing, according to reports published by PalmBeachPost.com,
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Florida’s governor justified the spending, saying the money will translate into jobs.
“Every 85 visitors to Florida equals one job in our state — and it is clear that more visitors to the Sunshine State means more jobs for Florida families,” Scott said.
FloridaTaxWatch, a fiscally conservative government watchdog group, agrees with the plan. The private nonprofit crunched the numbers and its data suggests 100 million tourists would create 121,298 jobs, half directly in the tourism sector and the other half in support industries like retail and construction.
But Mark Soskin, a professor of economics at Orlando’s University of Central Florida, said that while tourism leads to lots of jobs, they are not well paid. Florida Watchdog tried to contact Soskin, but he didn’t return requests for comment.
However according to the estimates Soskin gave to the Orlando Weekly, of 324 counties nationwide with more than 75,000 workers, Florida is home to the three with the lowest median incomes (Marion, Pasco and Lake,) and four others (Volusia , Manatee, Escambia and Polk) are in the bottom 25.
Water is wet, and Florida is sunny
Many are questioning if the money is well spent. Some say tourists will come to the state to vacation without the costly sales pitch. They may be right. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in meteorology to know that Florida has great weather and long stretches of sparkling beaches. So do taxpayers really need to spend $74 million to get that point across?
Soskin, a critic of the state’s reliance on tourism, says not really.
“There are no tourism industries that last,” he told to Orlando Weekly. “There is a life cycle for destinations. They come and they go. We have to look beyond that point: Is it something that gets us there? It can’t be what we are.”
Deliverables, and not just promises
Budget proposals have yet to specify where exactly all the money will be spent, and whether any of it will go toward tangible things like remodeling facilities, infrastructure, security, and airport personnel, rather than just window dressing.
Some worry that throwing millions into slick advertisements won’t shorten long lines at airport customs desks or lower sales-tax and hotel-tax rates. Others worry roads and schools are taking a back seat to the tourism economy.
In addition to the budget money they will receive, Visit Florida already manages the hefty “hotel tax,” a tax that rakes in another $650 million, also earmarked toward marketing.
Orlando Weekly pointed out that Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell first raised the issue in March 2001, back when he was on the county government beat. Maxwell looked at Las Vegas, where he found officials using $65 million of its tourist taxes every year on schools and roads.
In other states, hotel taxes support other entities, not just tourism promotion.
New Orleans, for example, uses hotel taxes for education. Chicago and Seattle spend those tax dollars on infrastructure and other public works projects.
In 2009, the Miami-Dade County Commission asked the state for its permission to use some of the money coming from the bed tax to hire extra police to patrol the tourist district. The request was turned down.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org or on Twitter @mtoledoreporter.