Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is throwing sand on the state's primary tourism agency, one of Gov. Rick Scott's most prized possessions.
Year after year, Scott has called on the Legislature to boost Visit Florida's budget to bring in more tourists, and this year was no different.
But Corcoran is driving legislation to kill both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which oversees state business incentive programs. Corcoran says the state's investment is a waste of money.
"Spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism," Corcoran tweeted Feb. 6.
His tweet was accompanied by an infographic comparing the number of Florida visitors with the amount of funding given to Visit Florida. The various stats relay one message: More money to Visit Florida doesn't equal more visitors.
On the surface, Corcoran's numbers seem to support the crux of his claim. But tourism experts cautioned that they don't tell the whole story.
They said the amount of money that tourists spend, and how long they choose to stay, is more important than the sheer number of visitors. We learned not all tourists are created equal.
To prove his point, Corcoran's team sent data that included three measurements from 2000 to 2015: the annual number of Florida visitors, the amount of funding to Visit Florida and the amount of money spent by Visit Florida per visitor.
Based on Corcoran's numbers, between 2011 to 2015, Visit Florida funding increased from $34 million to $74 million, or a roughly 117 percent change increase. In that same time, the number of visitors only showed a 22 percent increase.
Experts said annual counts aren't the only metric used to determine the success of a marketing investment.
"A primary marketing strategy is to get tourists to stay longer in a destination, thereby spending more money," said Kathleen Andereck, a professor at the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.
David Preece, academic director of the Center for Hospitality & Tourism at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, agreed.
"After all, you can't deposit visitors in the bank, but you sure can deposit the money they leave behind," Preece said.
Preece pointed to Visit Florida's strategic plan to generate $100 billion in annual visitor spending by 2020. That number was $71.8 billion in 2012-2013, $76.1 billion in 2013-2014, $82 billion in 2014-2015, and $89.1 billion in 2015-2016. That plan shows a trend of roughly an additional 7.5 percent spending per year which, if held, would reach $100 billion in the next couple of years, he said.
Other factors also can affect annual tourism arrivals and spending, making it further difficult to draw broad conclusions about tourism spending alone. Experts said these include hurricanes and other natural disasters, terrorism and crime, the political environment, gas prices and the cost of flights.
Coaxing international visitors to Florida's sandy shores is especially crucial to the marketing effort.
Youcheng Wang, an associate dean at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, told us he once attended an annual tourism meeting with China and the United States in Orlando. Before the delegation from China arrived, members received a brochure of popular tourist destinations.
"When I looked at the brochure my jaw nearly dropped," he said. "In that brochure, Orlando was described as a small fishing village with 20,000 people."
Wang offers that anecdote as a reason that marketing tourism is important, especially in the lucrative international scene, where Visit Florida has made big investments in hopes of bigger returns.
The agency spent $1.2 million to advertise with the Fulham Football Club, a British soccer team. Part of the deal includes placing Visit Florida logos on the team's jerseys and on the stadium's roof, which is near Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.
In 2015, the number of United Kingdom tourists that visited Florida reached 1.7 million. On top of that, British tourists outspent visitors from every other country except Canada by spending around $1.5 billion on their visits. They also stay in the state 13.3 days on average compared with the 4.9 days of a U.S. visitor.
As for Corcoran's statement, he has a point that spending doesn't directly impact tourist counts. But that neglects a primary objective of marketing tourism — getting people to spend more money when they're here. The amount of money visitors spend in Florida has increased steadily over the years.
We rate his claim Half True.
Read more at PolitiFact.com/Florida.