Originally Published by the Palm Beach Post
By Jennifer Berthiaume, Lion Country Safari
Tourist Development Taxes should be used for just that: tourist development. Voters decided that setting funds aside solely for tourism promotion was a wise move because promoting tourism attracts visitors whose spending creates jobs and generates local tax revenue.
These taxes paid into our community by visitors contribute to critical services for residents such as public safety, education, affordable housing and infrastructure. Creating jobs, generating tax revenue and saving residents from having to pay for critical services is a good thing, right?
Unfortunately, Tourist Development Taxes are under attack by the Florida Legislature just when we need them the most. The proposed House Bill 1429 and Senate Bill 2008 would allow local governments to sweep funding dedicated to tourism promotion and reallocate it for other uses.
This is a bad move at a bad time.
During this pandemic, the hardest-hit industries in Florida and in Palm Beach County have been tourism and hospitality. Hospitality jobs in Palm Beach County remain down approximately 20%. Visitor spending is down 20%. Restaurant and hotel revenue are down 33% and 38%, respectively. Visits to Palm Beach County dropped from our best year ever — 8.2 million in 2019 — to Great Recession levels, with just a little more than 5 million in 2020.
These bills would essentially kick our tourism and hospitality industries when they are down.
Now is the time to be supporting tourism and hospitality. Tourism is the front door to economic recovery. We are going to help spur Florida’s economic rebound as we safely bring visitors and their spending back to the state.
Our local tourism promotion organization, The Palm Beaches, is working hard to rebuild our tourism economy. They need every dollar of the Tourist Development Taxes collected to promote their new brand and campaign, as well as for efforts aimed at bringing business travel back.
Things are starting to look up. We’ve seen it ourselves at Lion Country Safari. While our drive-through safari has been open since May 2020, we were able to launch a soft reopening of Safari World, our 55-acre walk-through adventure park, last month. Now we are looking to hire 30 to 35 additional staff. There are positive trends in area hotel occupancy. Signs of revitalization are everywhere.
We must keep the momentum going and the best way to do that is by protecting the current permissible uses of Tourist Development Taxes. Shifting funding meant for tourism promotion will only have the opposite effect.
I hope our state lawmakers will consider this as they make decisions that will impact Florida’s ability to restore our economy.
Jennifer Berthiaume is the vice president of Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee.