Florida tourism teeters on uncertainty
By Mike Schneider
ORLANDO, Fla. The health of Florida's $50 billion tourism industry is going to be determined as much by Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida as by Mickey Mouse or Shamu in the coming months.
The threat of war with Iraq, further terrorist attacks, and plunging consumer confidence have created an uncertainty in Orlando, the heart of the state's tourism industry, not seen in a decade, experts say.
"There is a pretty fair degree of anxiety among the population, which tends to depress one's enthusiasm for travel," said Harris Rosen, who owns six hotels on International Drive, Orlando's busiest tourist corridor.
There are signs, though, that the worst is over from the free-fall that the tourism industry experienced after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando are hiring about 2,200 permanent and temporary workers in anticipation of the Christmas holiday season, the busiest time of the year for Orlando's theme parks.
But signs of weakness still abound.
Rosen expected Thanksgiving week to be his worst in 28 years and Christmas week just as poor. His hotels have always sold out during Thanksgiving week, but they're only expecting 50 percent occupancy this year, even though he's offering a room rate of $29.95 at four of his hotels.
Other signs point to trouble.
Traffic at Orlando International Airport for the year was down 10 percent through September, hurt primarily by the 24 percent decline in international visitors.
The occupancy rate of metro Orlando's 105,000 hotel rooms was 64 percent during the first week in November, a significant dip from pre-Sept. 11 levels, but a strong improvement over the same time last year.
Attendance at Walt Disney World is tracking at down 11 percent for the year, according to analysts' estimates from Prudential Financial.
The theme park resort doesn't release attendance figures.
While analysts at Merrill Lynch believe attendance at Walt Disney World will improve by 1 percent next year, attendance is hard to predict because visitors are making reservations as late as two weeks before taking their trips.