Florida tourism on the rebound as airlines add flights and hotels sell out

Oct 12, 2021

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Despite COVID-19 surges this summer, political battles over coronavirus restrictions and interagency fighting across the state, Florida tourism is on fire.

Demand for travel to Florida has rebounded quickly from its pandemic-era lows, with many U.S. carriers expanding operations to the state and demand for hotels sending prices in some popular cities surging to levels we weren’t seeing even before the pandemic.

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Travelers gather their luggage as they arrive at Miami International Airport on Sept. 20. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In This Post

Airline capacity and demand

Most major U.S. carriers, including United, Delta, American and Southwest, have added capacity to Florida in some way, either by adding additional flights on existing routes, adding new routes altogether or by sending larger planes.

United, which does not maintain a hub in the South, has chosen to increase capacity.

Just last week, United Airlines announced it will soon operate 195 flights from the Midwest to 12 Florida destinations this winter, marking its “biggest domestic schedule since the start of the pandemic,” a decision United said was “driven by demand” and an “expected surge in holiday travel.”

“Many of the destinations where we are adding service from, we have found are places where people have second homes in Florida and our flights offer convenient service,” Maddie King, a spokesperson for United, said via email. “This year, we are introducing one new flight to Florida with service from Indianapolis to Orlando.”

The Florida expansion is part of the airline’s push to “connect the Midwest to warm-weather cities like Las Vegas and Orlando,” in addition to “nearly 70 daily flights to ski destinations, including new service between Orange County and Aspen,” the airline said in a press statement.

Read more: United Airlines adds 3 more point-to-point routes from the Midwest

In July, American Airlines added eight new routes and two new destinations out of its South Florida hub.

“Due to strong demand for travel to Florida and to Latin America and the Caribbean, this year we’ve continued to strengthen our presence at our Miami hub- American’s largest international gateway,” an AA spokesperson confirmed via email, and emphasized both domestic and international growth alike.

“Our international growth has included destinations like Tel Aviv and Paramaribo, and later this year in December to Chetumal, San Andres, Dominica and Anguilla,” they said. “Domestically, we have also added new service, with flights to Little Rock, Portland, Huntsville, Milwaukee, Rochester, Bangor; and in December we’ll also add service to Salt Lake City, Albany, Burlington, Madison, Syracuse and Tulsa.”

With more than 360 daily flights to 140 destinations, American will operate one of its largest schedules out of Miami since it became a hub. Outside of Miami, AA has added more service throughout Florida, including seasonal service from Orlando to eight cities, including Nashville (BNA), Memphis (MEM) and Raleigh-Durham (RDU).

In September, budget-friendly carrier Frontier Airlines added nine new nonstop routes for a total of 70 routes of out Miami, including two to Turks and Caicos launching this December, in what TPG senior aviation editor Ben Mutzabaugh concluded was a move to “compete head-to-head against American Airlines.” Frontier failed to comment for this story.

In June, Spirit added 30 routes also from Miami, including both domestic and international flights, in addition to its already existing service out of Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Spirit’s largest base, roughly 30 miles down Interstate 95.

“We’re the only major airline based here in the state, and we know Florida better than anyone else,” Spirit said via email. “Once our full schedule is in operation in January, we’ll be the second largest carrier serving MIA. We currently have the largest presence at FLL, and the expansion into Miami will complement that existing FLL service.”

Based in FLL, Spirit considers this an expansion “within Florida” versus some of the others who expanded to Florida. The move was strategic, as Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando serve as the airline’s first and second-largest stations within their network, acting as international “gateways” to Latin American and the Caribbean.

“Guests often travel to one of these stations on their way to international destinations,” the Spirit spokesperson said and also noted that Miami International Airport (MIA) marks service to the airline’s seventh airport in Florida.

“And we also launched Pensacola earlier this year,” they continued. “Last week, we also launched our operation at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport…with four routes to Florida.”

Read more: American’s growing in Miami with 8-route expansion, including 2 new destinations

Delta, Southwest and JetBlue have all added flights incrementally; the latter two had strategically avoided MIA up until this year in favor of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL). Southwest also added Sarasota to its city list on Feb. 14 and Destin on May 6, per Mutzabaugh.

“Florida has always been a top leisure destination pre-pandemic and throughout and we make adjustments to our schedule based on where our customers want to fly,” said a Delta spokesperson. “This is why throughout the height of the pandemic, our flying was more heavily concentrated to places more associated with the outdoors, such as mountain and beach destinations, which includes Florida.”

All of these flights have been added even though scheduled air capacity to airports across the state has actually decreased.

“Scheduled air capacity to Florida airports (including international flights) for the last 3 months of 2021 is down by 3% compared to the last 3 months of 2019,” Leslie Pearsall, communications manager at Visit Florida, said via email. “For the rest of the country, it’s down 13%.”

With the Panhandle to the northwest and Miami Beach to its south, Florida has historically welcomed a diverse congregation of visitors flocking to its warm weather and various beaches, in addition to part-time snowbirds and retirees. Miami, in particular, is known for drawing a more raucous crowd, including for spring break. In March, the city of Miami Beach declared a state of emergency in an effort to control “larger than expected” spring break crowds, implementing an 8 p.m. curfew in South Beach’s entertainment district.

Florida and COVID-19

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on Sept. 22 in Kissimmee, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has received national flack for his refusal to implement COVID-19 safety protocols or even acknowledge the severity of the pandemic at all. Despite this, the Republican, in the midst of his 2022 reelection campaign, is ahead in at least one poll.

According to data from the Mayo Clinic, just 58% of Florida’s nearly 21 million residents are fully vaccinated, while 67.6% have received one dose. As of Oct. 7, state data shows that nearly 57,000 Florida residents have died due to COVID-19, roughly one in every 400 Florida residents, the 11th worst per-capita death rate in the United States.

For the past six weeks though, new case numbers have actually gone down since the week ending Aug. 27, according to numbers of recorded cases from the Florida Department of Health, which show nearly 26,000 new cases for the week of Oct. 1.

Related: New US travel report says unvaccinated families are more likely to visit theme and water parks

Like the rest of the country, the pandemic particularly hurt business travel in Florida, down 60% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same time period in 2019. But low vaccination numbers and lack of COVID-19 restrictions have had less of an effect on the leisure travel market than one might assume. According to data from STR from August shared by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board, hotel occupancy statewide in August was 58.4% and ranged from 52.2%-66.7% in various parts of the state.

“As to what might be behind the timing there are a lot of possibilities but it boils down to a couple things — Florida has the kind of travel experiences that people are looking for right now, and these trends have held steady for quite some time now,” Pearsall of Visit Florida said. “The Florida tourism industry has been doing exceptionally well (especially compared to other parts of the country) for at least the last six months.”

A beach in Miami on March 5. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images).

Hotel occupancy and pricing

It’s true that hotel occupancy has increased throughout 2021 in Tampa, Miami, Orlando and the Florida Keys, even though a Co-Star study from August comparing hotel occupancy across the country concluded Florida had the largest decrease in demand. Even so, the study’s authors attributed such loss to traditional downturns when the summer season ends rather than COVID-19.

In fact, Travel Weekly reported this spring that both occupancy and prices had actually increased from 2019 (pre-pandemic) in March of 2021, at least among resort properties.

Take hotels in Miami for example, where the average price of a hotel room is normally $211. A quick search of downtown Miami hotels on Booking.com for a weekend in November will yield you just 39 available hotels, the lowest priced of which is $459 for three nights for a queen room at a Comfort Inn & Suites in Brickell. This test search also shows that there’s limited supply in Miami for Nov. 13-15, with many of the hotels showing an alert for limited rooms available at that price. The same search on Hotels.com yielded fewer hotels, including three that were sold out. The cheapest Hilton property for the same weekend is $179 per night for the Hampton Inn Miami Beach — Mid Beach, one of 16 options that are considered to be in Miami Beach proper.

(Screenshot courtesy of Booking.com)

“Florida has always been a popular destination given the diverse range of attractions found within our state” said Ericka Nelson, director of operations of Kimpton’s seven hotels and restaurants throughout Miami, Vero Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Key West. “Guests can spend the morning at the beach, the afternoon at a state park and the evening dining at some of the country’s best restaurants. The state truly offers something for everyone.”

Nelson confirmed that Kimpton has seen a “steady stream of bookings even during our traditionally slower months.”

“With the winter season approaching, I encourage travelers considering Florida as a destination to make their reservations early and plan ahead in regards to which attractions they hope to see,” she said. “Winter has always been our high season and with the influx of reservations we saw this summer we anticipate this to continue.”

Kimpton EPIC Hotel in Miami. (Photo courtesy of Kimpton)

George Glover of BayStar Hotel Group, a Tampa-based group that manages, operates and develops hotels throughout the southeastern U.S., echoed similar findings at his five properties across Florida.

“Yes, attractive destination attractions and venues,” said Glover. “Our hotels have +80% vax’d team members, solid Brands, aggressive social media marketing and good management.”

Hotel representatives from Ritz-Carlton, Marriott and Hilton did not respond to requests for comment regarding hotel availability.

Outside of traditional hotels, I previously reported how Vrbo had less than 30% of vacation home properties still available for the Christmas holiday,  having sold out quickly among families booking vacation homes for the holidays, some as early as July.

Read more: New study confirms families are flocking to vacation rentals

Featured photo of South Beach, Miami, by Nisian Hughes via Getty Images.

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