State sees rise in tourism as St. Johns County also experiences strong response from travelers

It was a record first quarter for tourism in Florida this year, and St. Johns County seemed to play its part in the bump.


Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday morning that a record 31.1 million people visited the state in the first three months of the year. That was a 2.5-percent increase over last year.

Locally, the county visitors and convention bureau does not have exact numbers of visitors. However, VCB president and CEO Richard Goldman said numbers from Smith Travel indicated demand for overnight lodging in the county was strong in the first quarter.

“Given the growth in supply, demand and rates, simultaneously, we believe there continues to be growing demand for the destination, and the tourism industry should remain healthy through 2017 on Florida’s Historic Coast,” Goldman said in an email to The Record.

Demand, which measures rooms sold, was up 4.5 percent last quarter while the average daily rate also went up 3.3 percent.

Those statistics do not include visitation to the popular PGA Tour event, The Players Championship, which just wrapped up Sunday in Ponte Vedra Beach.

Yet everything in the county is not positive. Kim Kiff, general manager at Ripley’s Believe It or Not in St. Augustine, said there have been some drags to start the year.

“We are seeing drops in international numbers, which statistics are backing up,” Kiff said in an email to The Record. “We know that the current state of affairs around the world is affecting some international travel.”

Several media outlets reported declines in international travel early this year as foreigners reacted to President Trump’s travel ban, which has since been revised.

Also, there have been issues with the drop in currency exchange with the Canadian dollar and the looming issues with Great Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“On the flip side, we are seeing increases in groups and some domestic travel, so for us it is kind of a wash,” Kiff said. “We are hopeful for the summer season, and all things are currently indicating that the summer should be good to us.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed that things will also simmer down on the international front and help us to regain the international numbers.”

Even with concerns over international visitors, St. Johns County remains a popular place to visit, said David Chatterton, general manager for Old Town Trolley Tours in St. Augustine.

Chatterton said visitor activity to start the year has been solid. He said customers on the tours say the St. Augustine area is still a good value destination.

“The visitors continue to be enchanted with St. Augustine’s Old World charms and its walkability to explore all of our sights and along the hidden streets,” Chatterton said in an email to The Record. “We continue to hear that, dollar for dollar, St. Augustine is still the best family-friendly town to visit with its affordable ticket prices, lodging and diverse dining experiences.”

The high number of visitors to the state overall was lauded by Scott, who took the chance to criticize the Legislature for passing a budget that severely cuts the funding for state marketing agency Visit Florida.

“I am proud to announce today that Florida set another record by welcoming 31.1 million visitors during the first quarter of 2017, the highest number of quarterly visitors in the state’s history,” Scott said in a release. “This historic number would not have been possible without the significant funding we have invested in Visit Florida over the past few years.

“It is disappointing that the Florida Legislature made a shortsighted decision to jeopardize the growth of our tourism industry and the 1.4 million jobs that rely on it by cutting funding to Visit Florida by 67 percent.”

Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson, who will speak at a tourism event in St. Augustine on Wednesday, said the lack of funding will make it harder for Florida to compete with places like California and Texas in the future.

“We will strive every day so Florida does not become another case study like other states who lost billions of dollars in revenue due to cutting tourism marketing dollars,” Lawson said in a release.