International tourism decline continues in Sarasota County, with new federal guidelines on social media passwords one key factor, Visit Sarasota County president tells tourism advisory board

Domestic travelers’ numbers remain strong, Virginia Haley says

Virginia Haley. File photo

After hearing a report on record-breaking tourism figures for last year, members of Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Council voiced a big question last week: What about this year?

As Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates was wrapping up her March 23 presentation on her staff’s annual report for the 2016 fiscal year regarding Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue, she told the advisory board members she hated to end on a disappointing note. Nonetheless, she continued, “2017 collections are lagging slightly behind.”

She pointed to the year-over-year drops for the months of December 2016 and January. As The Sarasota News Leader reported on March 17, the total for December 2016 was down $26,093.01 compared to December 2015. January saw a drop of $220,437.85 from the figure for the same month in 2016.

Earlier, though, Ford-Coates had noted, “Sometimes we continue to collect [money for a previous month] during the subsequent months.”

Tourist Development Council (TDC) member Vern Johnson of Siesta Key said that before the meeting began, he had talked with Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, “about a softening” of tourism on Siesta Key this season. “You can actually move on Midnight Pass Road,” he added.

“Not on Sunday morning, you can’t,” Ford-Coates laughingly responded.

When it was her turn at the podium, Haley reported “pretty good numbers” for February, based on research routinely undertaken for her office. However, she said, “Visitation’s still flat,” though she noted a “nice increase in [tourists’] expenditures” and a bit of a rise in hotel room rates.

“We’re seeing great domestic visitation,” Haley told the board. “Florida, the Southeast, the Northeast — all up. It’s the international [tourism] that’s keeping us from those records we saw the last couple of years.”

Research for Visit Sarasota County provided these figures for the first quarter of the 2017 fiscal year. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

One other bright note, she said, is that, in spite of the strong dollar, for the third month in a row, the number of Canadian visitors has been on the rise.

In response to a question from Longboat Key Mayor Terry Gans, Haley reported that she had just returned from a three-day national conference with other tourism agency CEOS. “A lot of the early signs are not positive,” she acknowledged, noting “the political climate” in the United States is a primary factor keeping international visitors away.

One big concern, she continued, is “this new idea that [tourists] can be asked for all their social media passwords at the border, which, frankly, [Homeland Security personnel] can get from U.S. citizens, too …”

Furthermore, Haley said, foreign residents who have visited the nations that have been the focus of President Trump’s attempted travel ban are worried that if they have been to any of those countries and Homeland Security and Customs agents see the corresponding stamps in their passports, they will experience significant problems.

The New York Times reported last week that the “Trump administration is making it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the United States by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of American residents.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Image courtesy National Public Radio

The Times article continued, “Diplomatic cables sent [the previous] week from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to all American embassies instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny. It was the first evidence of the ‘extreme vetting’ Trump promised during the presidential campaign.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued in late February that the request for social media account passwords “would invade the privacy rights of not only thousands of affected visa applicants and refugees, but also all of the Americans they’re in touch with through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.”

The Times article added, “That extra scrutiny will include asking applicants detailed questions about their background and making mandatory checks of social media history if a person has ever been in territory controlled by the Islamic State.”

The ACLU joined “a large coalition of human rights organizations, civil liberties groups, trade associations, and security and technology experts to oppose the passwords plan,” Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney of the ACLU, wrote in a Feb. 28 article.

The Times pointed out, “The new rules generally do not apply to 38 countries — including most of Europe and longstanding allies [such as] Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea — whose citizens can be speedily admitted into the United States under the visa waiver program. No countries from the Middle East or Africa are part of the program. In 2016, the United States issued more than 10 million visas to foreign visitors.”

In countries that do not have visa waiver programs, Haley told the TDC members on March 23, visa applications are down 25%.

The terrorist attack in London last week also was very much on the minds of people attending the tourism conference, she added.

“We’re going to have to look at our domestic visitation,” Haley said. The good news on that front, she continued, is that wages have been growing, so people have “more spending power. The big opportunity for Visit Sarasota County, she pointed out, is “really going very heavily after that domestic market.”

Vehicles are bumper-to-bumper headed north through Siesta Village just after 3:30 p.m. on a January weekday. File photo

She noted that her staff had “a very robust advertising campaign in Toronto in November and December,” adding that visitors do respond to marketing.

When TDC member Norman Schimmel asked whether the continuing lower gasoline prices have helped the situation with U.S. residents visiting Sarasota, Haley told him that during this time of year, far more American tourists fly to Florida, because they generally come from greater distances. “Having steady, predictable oil prices always helps,” she added, but the summer months traditionally are when more visitors travel to Sarasota County by motor vehicle.

Mayor Gans of the Town of Longboat Key asked Ford-Coates if she would let the TDC members know the figures for February and March as soon as they are available. She assured him that her staff posts the monthly numbers on her website after they have been compiled. “Around April 1,” she said, the February figures should be available.

The latest quarterly report

The material Visit Sarasota County provided the TDC members in advance of the March 23 meeting included the quarterly report for October through December 2016. That showed the number of visitors was up 1.7% year-over-year for October; 0.4% for November; and 0.5% for December.

Tourists’ direct spending for those same three months climbed 1.6% year-over-year for October; 0.7% for November; and 0.3% for December.

The research also showed that 21% of people visiting Sarasota County in those three months were here for the first time, compared to 20% for the same period in 2015.