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Florida Tourism Is Recovering, But European And Canadian Visitors Are Missing Out

The website for German tour company TUI promises "culture and excellent beaches" in Sarasota, while St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer "beach, fun, and amazement."
TUI
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The website for German tour company TUI promises "culture and excellent beaches" in Sarasota, while St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer "beach, fun, and amazement."

Visit Tampa Bay reported earlier this week that tourism tax collections in Hillsborough County hit a record high in May. It is one sign Florida’s tourism economy is turning around after a brutal pandemic year. But the state is still seeing an impact due to the loss of visitors from Europe and Canada.

Thomas Kiessling calls Florida his paradise. “It’s not only the beaches, it's the people. People are relaxed, the lifestyle. People are friendly,” he says. Kiessling loves it so much that he moved from Germany to Sarasota about eight years ago. He runs a Facebook group Urlaub In Florida ("Florida Vacation") for fellow Germans who share a passion for the state. As a realtor, he owns vacation homes on Siesta Key.

Those properties have stayed full with U.S. visitors over the past year, and Kiessling says he is getting emails and instant messages from Germans who are eager to return. “But it's not only about tourism,” he said. “I know a bunch of a lot of people who have family here. They have friends here. And they are not allowed to visit them.”

While vaccinated American tourists can now visit the 27 members of the European Union, the U.S. remains closed to most international visitors. A recent WalletHub study says the lack of European visitors could cut into the state’s GDP by more than 3%. According to Reuters, the Biden administration has formed “working groups” on reopening the country to EU and Canadian travelers, but there is no timetable on a decision.

Florida traditionally sees the most international visitors from Canada. More than 3.6 million Canadians came in 2019, according to Visit Florida. The Canada-U.S. land border has been closed to most traffic since March 2020. While flights are operating between the two countries, tourists are not allowed and international air travelers to Canada face mandatory quarantine.

Domnic LeBlanc, Canada’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, told reporters this week that the border restrictions could be lifted soon. “As vaccination rates go up in the country and as case counts hopefully continue to come down, we'll have more to say around what a phased approach [to reopening] might look like at all of our international borders,” he said.

Meanwhile, Canadian low-cost airline Swoop announced this week it would begin service from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario in November...just in time for snowbird season.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Bradley George comes to WUSF from Atlanta, where he was a reporter, host, and editor at Georgia Public Broadcasting. While in Atlanta, he reported for NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and The Takeaway. His work has been recognized by PRNDI, the Georgia Associated Press, and the Atlanta Press Club. Prior to his time in Georgia, Bradley worked at public radio stations in Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.