Florida Markets Self As Vacation Destination To ... Floridians

Tourism is off to a slow start for 2007, while gas prices are soaring. That has the vacation industry nervous about summer--and they're hoping Floridians will opt to stay close to home.

Facing record gas prices and a looming hurricane season, Florida's tourism industry hopes to tamp down Floridians' wanderlust this summer and encourage them to vacation in the Sunshine State.

With the 2007 tourism season already off to a slow start, the state's tourism boosters worry that storm jitters and high fuel costs will discourage Americans from taking extended trips to Florida. But they see Floridians as much more receptive to Florida getaways: They'll be less susceptible to hurricane-season paranoia and face fewer fill-ups on the way to vacation.

This summer people "are going to go on vacation, but they're going to stay close to home," said Dale Brill, marketing chief for Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. "That's one of the reasons we're looking at our own Florida market."

The tax-funded agency is spending $1.2 million on an in-state television campaign this summer centered on the theme "Passions in Your Own Backyard." Now in its second year, the Floridian vacation campaign is paired with a Web site, floridians.visitflorida.com, that lets users plot Florida trips by the number of hours they want to drive within the state.

Two statistics offered a discouraging picture for tourism promoters. Visit Florida said overnight visitors statewide dropped 0.9% in the first quarter over 2006. The visitor numbers gave 2007 its slowest start for tourism since 2004, when a record spate of hurricanes wreaked havoc with Florida's tourism industry.

Also, retail gas prices last week jumped to a new record: $3.19 a gallon nationwide, up 30 cents from a year ago.

In South Florida, Miami-Dade stations also posted a new record of $3.15 for a gallon of regular unleaded, up 27 cents from a year ago. Broward stations hadn't yet matched the $3.06 high-water mark posted in August 2006, with the average gallon of gas costing $3.04 last weekend, according to AAA's daily fuel report.

It's not clear how much gas prices will really affect travel. A recent survey by AAA predicted a 1.4% increase in travel this summer nationwide, with only 11% of those polled saying they plan to curtail vacations because of gas prices. Still, gas prices are expected to peak in August, after dropping off slightly through July, according to analysis by the Energy Information Administration.

Almost all of Miami-Dade County's 2.5% tourism growth last year came from the 32% gain in visitors driving to the destination. Gas prices are "a concern for us all," says Rolando Aedo, head of marketing for the Greater Miami tourism bureau.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has tripled its efforts to reach Florida vacationers by running ads in more than 30 newspapers statewide in the coming months. The Broward tourism bureau boosted its summer advertising budget by about 10% and will continue the "Summer of Discovery" campaign it launched last year to target Florida vacationers.

Nicki Grossman, Broward's tourism chief, compares the effort to a post-9/11 campaign to combat flying fears by encouraging more vacationers to drive to the Fort Lauderdale area.

"This time, some of our traditional drive traffic may hesitate," she said. "If they do, we want to make sure the people who are closer--who can get here on a tank of gas--will have a reason to come."