In her September 3 blog post, “Creative Florida”, Rana Florida asked for thoughts about Florida tourism. As a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida, I thought I should respond.
Tourism has long been the golden goose in Florida but it is also a double-edged sword. We have no state income tax in large part due to the sales tax revenue that tourism provides. When the tourists come, the coffers fill and all is well. When we have downturns in the economy or other disruptions (such as hurricanes or 9/11) our budgets shrink. This volatility prevents us from having a predictable revenue stream which in turn means less long-term planning.
For better or worse, tourism also defines Florida. For many it is great to have that identity but I know a lot of creative class entrepreneurs in high-tech who lament that they can’t attract talent or VC interest because no one takes Florida seriously as a business environment.
But to me the largest impact of tourism is that it has made us lazy (I say this with love, Florida!). Tourism is easy money and we have coasted on that for too long. When the tourists just arrive with bags of money, why innovate? Why invest in our schools or our infrastructure? Why make the hard tax choices when we can raise the bed tax on hotel rooms or local tax on car rentals? We need to rethink tourism and make it a higher value experience, one that leverages the service economy and makes it more creative and innovative.
Florida had a wake-up call last year when, for the first time since WW2, we had a net outflow of population. That is a seismic shift in the underpinnings of Florida’s economy and I hope that it forces us to look at diversifying our economy and making the harder choices of developing industries beyond the beach and theme park.