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Events like the TaxSlayer Bowl bring huge crowds to Jacksonville.
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jul. 17, 201412:00 PM EST

Tourism is a $1.5B business for Jacksonville, despite low funds available

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

There’s an industry that brings more than $1.5 billion into Jacksonville’s economy each year and employs more than 16,000 workers — and people drive or walk past it every day and probably don’t realize it.

That’s the impact of tourism, according to a study based on data collected from October 2012-September 2013 by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company.

In addition to the local tourism industry’s impact for commercial lodging, transportation providers and other businesses directly affected when someone travels to Jacksonville for business, entertainment, sports or leisure travel, tourism supports more than 6,000 additional jobs with a total income of more than $684 million.

According to the study, food and beverage businesses received 29 percent of visitor spending, followed by lodging providers at 25 percent and retail businesses with 20 percent. Local transportation and recreation each measured at 13 percent.

Maintaining and growing the local tourism industry is the responsibility of Visit Jacksonville, the convention and visitors bureau for Jacksonville and the Beaches.

Funded by a portion of the local 6 percent hotel bed tax, the nonprofit corporation is contracted by the Duval County Tourist Development Council to perform sales and marketing activities.

Visit Jacksonville’s annual budget is about $3.6 million, which is considerably lower than the budgets for cities Jacksonville competes, such as Orlando and Nashville, against to attract business and leisure travelers.

“We’re the lowest among our primary competitors,” said Visit Jacksonville President and CEO Paul Astleford. “And we’re in a very competitive industry.”

Jacksonville’s last-place position among its competitors is due to several factors, including the number of hotel rooms available in the market.

For example, the number of rooms in the Disney Port Orleans Resort near Orlando is about equal to the combined number of rooms in the eight largest hotels in Jacksonville. All 153 hotel, motel and resort properties in Jacksonville represent a total of 17,997 rooms, about equal to the seven largest lodging properties in Orlando.

The level of service determines the rate hoteliers can charge for a room. Properties that don’t offer a restaurant or banquet facilities and limited amenities such as business centers and fitness rooms – known in the hospitality business as “limited service” – can’t charge as high a rate as properties that offer more amenities.

“Most of the rooms in Jacksonville are in limited-service hotels,” Astleford said.

That limits the potential for bed-tax revenue, based on simple arithmetic.

“More rooms and higher room rates generate much more marketing funds,” said Astleford.

However, it isn’t reasonable to expect that many more hotel rooms will be built in Jacksonville in the next few years.

That means the potential revenue for marketing tourism isn’t likely to appreciably increase, even though local tourism has been growing by about 4 percent each year for the past five years.

Astleford said the value of the local tourism industry should not be gauged by how many rooms are booked for how many nights – referred to in the industry as “heads in beds.” What’s more important is the long-term effect a trip to Jacksonville can have on a visitor.

“Tourism is an export business,” he said. “People who visit Jacksonville for business or for pleasure take their good experience home with them and they tell their friends and colleagues. That can influence decisions about relocating or expanding their business. Tourism can increase the economy and create a new level of prosperity.”

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