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Despite concerns, international tourism still healthy in Osceola

Posted on Monday, March 20, 2017 at 12:30 pm

By Ken Jackson

Staff Writer

Concerns over possible travel restrictions into the United States have set off warning bells about the international tourism market, but local tourism leaders believe the impact will be minimal in Osceola County.
Brian Wong, the chair of the Tourism Development Council, pointed to a Wall Street Journal story last week that estimates that only 2 million international visitors will come to the U.S. this year. He detailed how tourism promoters across the country are launching campaigns to paint America as welcoming a destination.
But, he and D.T. Minich, CEO of Experience Kissimmee, remain confident about the tourism industry and future in Osceola County.
“It seems all the other major gateways like New York City, California and Hawaii forecast (a travel downtown) and sending out alarmist messages, but not us here in Orlando/Kissimmee,” Wong said.
Minich, who just returned from a marketing campaign in Germany, spoke at Tuesday’s TDC meeting, giving his findings on what the travel temperature is in Europe. His theme was that misinformation fueled a small-scale panic earlier this year.
“We met with tour operators from all over Western Europe, and it was a mixed message,” he said. Advance bookings (from mainland European markets) were down double digits because of a combination of U.S. politics, bad info on the travel bans and the position of the dollar (against the Euro and other currencies).
“There are crazy rumors flying around, like that you have to give up your phone and social media passwords for inspection when you arrive. We have to get that message out that this is not the case.”
An EK marketing trip to Mexico scheduled for Feb. 16 was postponed to April, and the United Kingdom market, despite EK becoming the tourism partner for London soccer club West Ham United within the last year, is off a bit.
“It’s a little soft. Bookings were way off the week after the inauguration but are steadily coming back,” Minich said. “Domestically, we’re good — this snowstorm reminded people winter’s not over up north — but the average domestic stay is three nights, the average international stay is seven to 10 to 14 days. We need three domestic travelers to equal one international traveler.”

He noted that there are still strong markets, such as China, thanks to more of its billion residents traveling, and Canada, because of a favorable exchange rate.

Wong said the Brazilian market, which took off a few years ago, cooled recently but is bouncing back, according to indicators, and the Far East is ready to explode.

“(Brazil) is stabilizing with a new president, and the effects of hosting the Olympics are wearing off,” said Wong, who also manages the Celebration Suites on West U.S. 192. “And I saw where, in China, they are going to be hiring 100 pilots a week for over the next year, to keep up with their traveler demand. There’s added planes and routes and airlines don’t just add them if they don’t already know those seats will be filled.

“We need to be focusing on that region — China, Japan, Korea and India. That’s 3.5 billion people.”

With well- publicized disasters like the Pulse nightclub shooting and an alligator attack at a Walt Disney World Resort last summer, Wong expected a drop in his international business—but last year ended up being his strongest on record.

“Orlando had the worst news cycle in its history,” Wong said.

The area seems to be flourishing this month, even without Houston Astros spring training baseball. Wong said March has been great at his hotel because of Spring Break — he raised some room rates to holiday pricing, and got them booked.

“They’re here to go to the theme parks,” he said. “Explains why you can’t get around on 192 real well right now.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Minich reported that Tourism Development Tax collections were down just a bit in December 2016 ($1.3 million) from December 2015 ($1.36 million), but year-to-date Osceola’s collections were up 3.5 percent. Wong said that his information was that Orange County saw a 5 percent dip in December.