TALLAHASSEE - Travel to Florida from Canada has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, but visa issues continue to complicate the state's efforts to draw overseas visitors.
The tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida reported Tuesday that the state attracted an estimated 1.44 million Canadians during the first quarter of 2023.
With COVID-19 vaccine restrictions lifted at the Canada-U.S. border, the first-quarter number was up from an estimated 488,000 Canadian visitors in the first quarter of 2022. The state drew 1.446 million Canadians in the first quarter of 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the first quarter of 2020, when the pandemic started to cause massive disruptions in the tourism industry, Florida drew 1.371 million people from Canada.
"Canadian visitation is where we have seen the biggest rebound by far over the last few months," said Brett Laiken, Visit Florida's senior vice president of marketing. "Basically, we're back to where it was prior to the pandemic, with Canadians flocking to the state, which is always good to see."
Canada is traditionally the top international country of origin for visitors to Florida, with the full-year number topping 4 million in 2019.
Meanwhile, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young blamed "ridiculous visa wait times that mostly first-time visa applicants are facing" for keeping tourism from several key international markets from approaching pre-pandemic levels.
As an example, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs website said Tuesday, the wait time in Bogota, Colombia, for a non-immigrant visa appointment was 801 days. In Mexico City, it was 737 days. In Rio De Janeiro, it was 477 days. People in London had to wait 90 days. In Paris, it was 180 days.
"Peru is 387 days, which compared to the others looks good, but it's still over a year just to get an interview, and who knows how long it's gonna take to process that," Young said.
The backlog has been attributed, at least in part, to staffing shortages at embassies. The Biden administration lifted COVID-19 vaccination requirements for international air travelers on May 11, the same day that a COVID-19 public health emergency ended.
Young said she and other state travel officials recently discussed "unacceptable" wait-time figures with U.S. State Department representatives during the U.S. Travel Association's IPW trade show in San Antonio, Texas.
"They were great people. They were very pleasant," Young said. "They were really trying hard. And you know, I certainly appreciate that they're trying hard. (But) this is not good enough."
And because Florida is a larger international draw than most other areas, the delays "are disproportionately impacting Florida," Young said.
Florida drew an estimated 1.8 million overseas visitors in the first three months of this year, a 36 percent increase over 2022 but a decline from the 2.276 million visitors who traveled to the state in the first quarter of 2019.
Overall, Visit Florida estimates the state had a record 37.9 million visitors during the first quarter of 2023. That compared to 35.528 million in the first three months of 2022. Visitors from other states continue to drive tourism growth.
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