Florida’s tourism-marketing agency wants Floridians to become in-state travelers, as the crucial hospitality industry tries to rebound amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the country headed into Labor Day weekend, Visit Florida launched its first ad campaign since the pandemic hit in March, pitching Floridians on first exploring the state before they make other travel plans. The roughly $13 million campaign will last at least through December.

“In-state travel is an important first step in our long-term recovery plan,” Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said during a news conference last Wednesday at The Daytona, Autograph Collection, a boutique hotel in Daytona Beach.

“And we are going to be moving very soon into a domestic U.S. campaign at the right time to start bringing people from around the country back to Florida,” Young continued. “Our message is very clear: We have rebounded from crises before. And we will rebound from COVID-19.”

The state saw tourism numbers crash more than 60% in the second quarter of the year from the same period in 2019, ending a decade of year-after-year growth of travelers to Florida.

The marketing focus on Floridians, which will be done online, through billboards and in traditional TV ads, is based on data that show people are more comfortable traveling closer to home.

“And right now, they're feeling more comfortable driving,” said Young, whose agency again had to fend off an attempt this year by House leaders to abolish it.

“We often hear people … say that travelers know about our beaches, they know our theme parks. So why do we have to spend money to advertise them?” Young said. “I’ll tell you why. First, because advertising works. If it didn't work, large sophisticated corporations wouldn’t do it. And second, and more importantly, is that Florida is more than just beaches and theme parks. We are a diverse, amazing, unique state. And our job at Visit Florida is to tell the story of the whole Florida to the entire world.”

Money for the ads was held over from the spring, when the virus halted the agency’s marketing efforts. The campaign is scheduled to expand in late September, with 12 local tourism agencies partnering in the effort.

The pandemic has put more than 1.2 million Floridians out of work, and estimates are that around 550,000 of those people are tied to the hospitality and leisure fields.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, also at the news conference, called the campaign an “invaluable tool” to show people “Florida is back.”

“I know a lot of people want to come here,” DeSantis said. “And so, we really believe that this campaign will help reinvigorate those jobs and contribute to these communities even more.”

DeSantis has been pushing since May 4 to revive the economy, though the effort ran into problems in late June when COVID-19 cases and deaths surged.

Last week, DeSantis backed major theme parks in the state increasing their capacity, as attendance is down more than 80% from previous years.

DeSantis reasserted Wednesday that theme parks haven’t been a source of mass COVID-19 outbreaks and that beaches are fine for people to go out and exercise. He also has traveled the state recently touting improved COVID-19 statistics.

“We’ve declined now in hospitalized COVID patients by over 60% since the third week of July,” DeSantis said. “We're down 55% in terms of COVID-positive patients that are hospitalized in the ICU (intensive care unit). And the number of individuals who go to the emergency department with COVID-like illnesses has declined by more than 75% since the peak, the 7th of July. And so those are really strong indicators it's not just confined to one part of the state.”

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