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Dana Young, left, Visit Florida president and chief executive officer, speaks with Citrus County Tourism Development Council member Gene McGee Aug. 20 at the Discover Crystal River Visitor Information Center prior to a meeting discussing tourism in Citrus County.

THE ISSUE: Visit Florida.

OUR OPINION: Agency’s marketing leverage vital for rural county tourism.

Since 2009, Florida has had over 1 billion visitors, with last year setting yet another new annual record of close to 127 million visitors.

While Florida’s major theme parks have contributed to Florida’s upward spiral of visitors from around the world, Visit Florida has played an important role in promoting tourism beyond Orlando and Tampa since its creation over 22 years ago.

Nonetheless, the shortsighted view that Florida’s reputation as a tourism destination is enough to entice visitors led the House leadership to push for the defunding of the agency during this year’s legislative session. Only at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis did the Legislature give the agency an 11th hour reprieve of nine months to prove that continued funding is warranted, but with a budget one-third less than the previous year.

As acknowledged by Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Visit Florida has proven its value with its marketing efforts returning $2.15 in tax revenue for every state dollar appropriated.

Working hand-in-hand with local businesses and tourism councils to market themselves with a variety of grant programs, Visit Florida’s return on the dollar has had the greatest impact on the economies of the state’s small, rural counties with their bed tax revenue growth increasing nearly 50% faster than urban counties since 2012.

With tourists spending $234 million in Citrus County during 2017, local tourism officials made it loud and clear to Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young during a recent visit that the agency’s marketing leverage is vital for the county’s tourism industry.

Although Young pledged Visit Florida’s continued commitment to leveraging its marketing to help promote Citrus County’s tourism, the commitment may be tempered by the agency’s significant budget cut and the reality that it could be operating on borrowed time.

Given the uncertainty of Visit Florida’s future, Young also had a loud and clear message for Citrus County, as well as other rural counties — let your state legislators know how vital it is to keep Visit Florida afloat.

Each of Florida’s rural counties that benefit from Visit Florida would be wise to answer Young’s call with county commission resolutions, economic impact briefings to their legislative delegations, and a letter-writing campaign by benefiting businesses to state lawmakers, especially House and Senate leadership.

With Visit Florida falling out of favor with the House leadership, rural counties cannot afford to idly sit back and assume the agency can overcome the skepticism of those state legislators who believe Florida’s tourism reputation is enough to attract visitors to the Sunshine State.

Failure to keep Visit Florida afloat could see tourism for Citrus County and other rural counties stagnate or even whither.

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