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No Samba, Please. We’re Tampa Bay.

July 14, 2011

This past weekend, the Times ran a story about how tourists from Brazil are flocking to Florida and spending big money – in Orlando and Miami.  It’s a fascinating story.  Most crucially, it shows that complacency and lack of effort in one area of the economy – in this case international flights – can have a knock on effect on the rest of the economy and render us uncompetitive down the line.

Really, much of the article speaks for itself:

Brazil could dethrone the United Kingdom this year as the state’s biggest source of overseas visitors; in 2010, the 1.07-million Brazilians who visited Florida trailed the U.K. total by just 232,000.

But those Brazilians spent $1.4 billion in Florida last year, nearly twice the level of their counterparts from the U.K. (Canadians, not included in the overseas tourist numbers, remain No. 1 in terms of both foreign visitors and spending.)

* * *

But the boom that brought more than 500,000 Brazilians to Miami-Dade and upward of 450,000 to Orlando last year has largely sidestepped Tampa Bay.

Pinellas attracted fewer than 30,000 overnight visitors from all of Latin America in 2010. An estimated 200,000 Brazilians came to Hillsborough last year. But nearly half of them didn’t even spend the night.

Busch Gardens is a rare hot spot. Guides herd huge tour groups of kids wearing identical jerseys and T-shirts around the park from mid-June through July, which is winter break in Brazil. But often as not, they arrive by bus from Orlando and return at the end of the day.

“I wish Tampa had the international appeal of those other destinations,” said Jill Revelle, a Busch Gardens spokeswoman. ”But we’re not quite there yet.”

Tampasphere wishes the Tampa Bay Area had more international appeal, too.  It would be nice to have more organized transportation, pedestrian (and thus, tourist/visitor) friendly development, shopping, and entertainment.  It would be nice to have destinations within the area rather than have everything scattered. (We’re not even going to get into Medical City–check out the nice New York Times write up [can you say international exposure?].  What would they write up in Tampa Bay? .  It would also be nice to have a plan to get there – though the Hillsborough Rail Tax debacle leaves us dubious about local planning.)

The Tampa Bay area is not wholly lacking in international appeal, but a large part of international appeal is also based on the local attitude and actions and the ease of access. The Times article makes some very salient points that show just how far out of the game Tampa Bay is in this regard.

First, and foremost, TIA has no flights to Latin America (we don’t count Cancun – what does a flight to a beach resort do to develop the local economy?).  Tampasphere is thankful that the Airport Director has taken up the challenge to connect Tampa Bay with the world after the previous director had all but abandoned efforts to get meaningful international flights.  However, in too many quarters complacency is still too common, as can be seen, shockingly, but not surprisingly, given the fact that 200,000 Brazilians come to Hillsborough County as day trippers:

Miami has welcomed Brazilians with luxury stores and international style for two decades. Orlando’s tourism agency, Visit­Orlando, teamed with Disney, Universal and Sea World two years ago on a $1 million advertising campaign in Brazil with the slogan “Orlando Makes You Smile.”

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Hillsborough’s tourism agency, Tampa Bay & Co., employ a promoter in Brazil who pitches stories about the area to local television stations. But there is no mass-market consumer advertising of the Tampa Bay area.

Orlando’s tourism boss suggests that while German tourists consider beaches the centerpiece of a Florida vacation, Brazilians, who have nice beaches of their own, don’t.

“Beaches are not the main driver,” said Gary Sain, executive director of VisitOrlando. “But the shopping trip is a huge attraction.”

Ok, Tampa Bay has shopping (though it is scattered) – Tampa Bay has medicine (though it is scattered) – we don’t have any international presence because, obviously, we have not tried to have a presence in flights or marketing.

At the risk of beating a dead horse (and this horse has been dead for some time – decades? –  now), at some point it would behoove the Tampa Bay Area to realize that while others are actively courting tourists, investors, transportation solutions, and high paying business in a unified, methodical, and organized way, we are way behind the curve  – Like, say, the port – and it is costing us, and those costs are like to increase exponentially as our competition accelerates away from us while we try to make up for all the lack of action that has gone before.

So the next time someone pooh-poohs an effort to get international flights to TIA, just send them the Times article.

A couple of other things Tampasphere would like to point out:

1) Note this from another recent Times article:

UCF wants to build a $42 million school with a $10 million anonymous donation and the rest with loans. It would be self-supporting and not rely on taxpayer dollars, Kotala said.

We don’t know if a dental school is needed, but how did UCF manage to get a medical school and now have what seems to be a decent plan for a dental school?  Does USF have a plan?  Why didn’t they ask for the dental school (maybe they have a good reason – what is it?) – of course if they did who thinks there wouldn’t be a fight between Pinellas, Polk and Hillsborough over which campus would get it?

2) We’d also like to note that Fox pointed out that the Marlins and the Rays are the only MLB teams to never host an All-Star game.  Does the St. Pete mayor think his city will ever host one at the Trop?  Does he care?]

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