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Orlando`s tourist population dropping

The British aren`t coming to Orlando: What`s behind tourism plunge?
March 09, 2011|By Sara K. Clarke, Orlando Sentinel

The number of British visitors to Orlando fell in 2010 for a third consecutive year, a puzzling decline in travel from what was once Central Florida`s biggest international market.

Experts offer various reasons for the continuing losses, though it`s difficult to say for sure why it`s happening.

Last year was considered ideal for British visitors in some respects, thanks mostly to the opening of Universal Orlando`s Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.

Built around English author J.K. Rowling`s beloved novels, which have a massive fan base in the United Kingdom, the Potter attraction has been immensely popular: Although open only the second half of the year, it boosted Universal`s annual attendance by 20 percent, or nearly 2 million additional guests.

Yet last year British travel to Central Florida was down nearly 15 percent, to about 710,000, according to the latest estimate from Visit Orlando, the local visitors bureau.

At its high point in 2007, the yearly head count of Brits reached nearly 1 million, according to Visit Orlando, though it then fell during the recession by 3.1 percent in 2008 and 13.4 percent in 2009.

Stranger still, last year`s local decrease conflicts with statewide figures compiled by Visit Florida, the state`s quasi-private marketing agency. According to Visit Florida, which uses a different methodology to count tourists, travel from the U.K. to the state rebounded last year, rising 5 percent to 1.3 million visitors.

In Miami, which tracks visitors from just England, rather than the U.K. overall, the number of visitors fell 3.7 percent last year to 290,827. But in neighboring Fort Lauderdale, the number of Brits paying that area a visit rose slightly, 0.6 percent, to 181,947, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

One possible explanation for what`s going on with British travelers in Orlando involves understanding how they get here.

Many arrive in the area on charter flights, having bought discount vacation packages that offer theme-park fun in Orlando and often some sun, sand and surf at nearby beaches. But in 2008-09, two of those key charter operators XL Leisure Group and Globespan Group went belly-up and stopped flying into Orlando Sanford International Airport. Meanwhile, some of the airlines with scheduled flights into Orlando International Airport from the U.K. switched to smaller planes, further reducing capacity. That shrinkage which amounted to about 9 percent last year might have forced some British tourists to fly into other Florida airports, said Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando.

"The first arrival [airport] tends to be the city that they`re counted at," Courtenay said. "That could be one of the reasons why there`s a little bit of a dip" in Orlando`s count.

Another possible reason for the 15 percent drop last year and the 13.4 percent decrease the year before that: Britain in the past two years has sharply increased its "air-passenger duty" a tax that airline passengers pay when flying from the U.K. to someplace else. The tax is zoned geographically, so now it costs much more to fly to the U.S. than to some European destinations though not quite as much as it costs to fly to places such as the Caribbean.

"Last time that the APD was raised, any growth that we saw in the U.K. market stopped," said Vicki Jaramillo, marketing director for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "Things like this are a challenge for any destination that is trying to attract U.K. travelers."

Key tourism partners, including the airport, are drafting a letter to U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, alerting him to the possible effect of the British tax on Central Florida tourism, Jaramillo said.

And it`s not just an Orlando issue. Destinations across the state consider the U.K. one of their top international markets.

"They tend to travel during what we would call a `shoulder` or a slower season," said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys, which markets itself heavily in the U.K. but has also seen a decline in the number of British tourists. "It`s an important part of the equation."

As for 2011, Orlando`s visitors bureau is forecasting a 4.5 percent increase in British visitors compared with last year, which would raise the tally to 740,000.

As for the 2008-10 declines locally, it`s likely that the middle-class British families who historically flock here for theme parks and beach days were particularly affected by their country`s general economic turmoil, said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

"People in those middle-income classes are still really struggling," Snaith said. "I think the holiday to Disney World is low-hanging fruit when British households have to start making those decisions" to cut back on discretionary spending.

Canada is currently the area`s No. 1 international market, followed by the U.K. and then Brazil.

As the British economy slowly recovers, tourism promoters in Orlando are looking for ways to recapture the U.K. market. Visit Orlando is planning summits with its business partners here and abroad to discuss how Orlando can remain competitive.

"It`s really getting everybody in a room to talk about: What are you hearing? What are you seeing? What do we need to do as a destination?" Courtenay said. "As the U.K. market comes out of an economic slump, we`re not going to be the only ones trying to get our U.K. share back."

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