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Despite Irma, Miami tourism grew in 2017. Will Asia flights make 2018 even better?

Tourists take pictures on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach on September 24, 2017 following Hurricane Irma.
Tourists take pictures on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach on September 24, 2017 following Hurricane Irma.

For the past several years, Miami's tourism industry has taken a few blows. It battled Zika and Hurricane Irma and the economic crisis in Brazil, Miami's No. 1 inbound traveler market.

But now, it's moving into 2018 with most of those hardships behind it.

"Those were headwinds and now we are going to have tailwinds," said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors' Bureau, at its annual State of the Tourism Industry meeting.

Addressing a crowd of business leaders and elected officials at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science Tuesday, Talbert highlighted Miami's tourism industry's above-average performance in 2017 — despite the headwinds.

About 15.9 million people visited Miami in 2017, an increase of nearly 1 percent over the prior year. The increase was thanks to a 2.3 percent bump in international visits, which offset a 0.5 percent decrease in the number of domestic travelers who overnighted in Miami.

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Dozens of local tourism leaders and elected officials attended the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors' Bureau State of the Tourism Industry address on Tuesday morning at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. GMCVB

Fewer Canadians visited Miami in 2017 than they did in 2016, but the country retained the top spot as the No. 1 source market for international travelers. That top spot had long belonged to Brazil, which plummeted by 26 percent less visitors in 2016 and another 5 percent in 2017, year over year. But those challenges were balanced by a 2 percent increase in visitors from Colombia, an 8.2 percent increase in travel from Argentina and a 12.5 percent bump in German travelers to Miami.

On the domestic side, travelers from about half of the top 25 markets, including No. 1 New York, visited Miami less in 2017 than they did in 2016, while the other half increased their visits. As a result, domestic visitorship remained about flat last year.

In all, Miami tourists spent a record-breaking $26 billion in the region in 2017, an increase of 2.1 percent compared to 2016. Their favorite spots: the beaches, South Beach, Lincoln Road, Bayside Marketplace and Downtown Miami.

Most visitors stayed at hotels. Despite a September dip in visitors due to Hurricane Irma, local hotels ended the year 1.5 percent more full on average than they were in 2016. Still, the average room rate dropped slightly by 0.6 percent to $188.81 in 2017, from $189.98 in 2016.

A growing number of travelers, though, stayed at short-term rentals. About 5 percent of all visitors rented a residence or a room in a home, up from 3.7 percent in 2016. Platforms like Airbnb were once considered "disruptors" by the bureau, which works hand-in-hand with area hotels. But with Airbnb and HomeAway's new tax deals with South Florida governments, the bureau is working to better track their performance and impact on the local tourism economy, as it does with hotels.

The bureau plans to use AirDNA, an independent website that scrapes Airbnb's listings, to track the performance of short-term rentals in the areas of Miami-Dade County where they operate legally. According to bureau analysis, Airbnb is not negatively impacting hotel performance, said Rolando Aedo, the GMCVB's chief operating officer, though the industry continues to grow.

"Airbnb is such a significant player, so we need to do a thorough job of tracking [its] performance," he said in an interview.

Moving into 2018, visitation to Miami was up about 4.7 percent on average in January and February over the same months the previous year. In September, the long-shuttered Miami Beach Convention Center will reopen after a $625 million renovation. More than 20 conventions have already been booked in the new space, the bureau said. This year, local tourism leaders will again seek approval to build an 800-room convention center headquarter hotel near the Miami Beach property, Talbert said. Previous plans have not passed voter scrutiny.

This year, too, another long-promised deal may finally come to fruition: direct air service to Asia.

Leaders from the tourism bureau and the county have met with representatives of Japan Airlines several times already this year, following earlier attempts to woo Asian carriers. They're optimistic that they will be able to strike a deal soon. .

"We are confident that sooner, rather than later, you are going to see direct air service from Tokyo to Miami, Florida," Talbert told the crowd Tuesday. "Next year, I will be standing here and we will have the head of Japan Airlines and we will have done the inaugural."

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH