Tourism & Cruises

With dollar strong, S. Florida tourism industry watches for impact

The scene along along Ocean Drive during Miami Beach's Art Deco Weekend between Fifth and 13th Streets on January 16, 2015.
The scene along along Ocean Drive during Miami Beach's Art Deco Weekend between Fifth and 13th Streets on January 16, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Steven Neifeld will take off for his first European vacation next month — a trip he planned to take advantage of the value winter season in London and Paris.

What the Miami Beach resident didn’t realize when he booked the trip last fall was that the dollar would continue its climb and the euro would drop to a more than 11-year low by mid-January, giving travelers from the U.S. more purchasing power across the pond.

“It’s a nice surprise,” said Neifeld, 64, a recruiter for a North Miami company. “Maybe we can do something extra … as well as pack a little less because we can go shopping.”

By midday Friday, the euro hit $1.1244 after scraping $1.1115. And the dollar headed for its highest close on record in advance of a Federal Reserve meeting next week, Bloomberg News reported.

As Americans find that their cash is packing more of a punch — and continue to reap savings from falling gas prices — travel providers are pitching this as the perfect time to book trips to Europe.

At the same time, tourism promoters around the country and especially in Florida, where 3.8 million Europeans spent nearly $3 billion in 2013, are watching to see whether currency fluctuations will keep international visitors away and encourage more Americans to abandon travel at home for overseas trips.

“We’ve been an inexpensive alternative for travel to Europe and Latin America, and now that’s quickly changing,” said Robert Finvarb, a hotel developer who is opening two new properties in Miami Beach this spring. While Finvarb said he is “very concerned” about the potential impact on his business, he pointed out that falling oil prices, potential airfare deals and cheaper road trips could ease any blow.

“Will that increase in domestic inbound travel mitigate the impact of the strengthening dollar?” he asked. “Who knows?”

From the national to the local level, destination marketing organizations are not yet sounding alarms, arguing that exchange rates won’t be enough to overshadow the safety, value and unique experiences found in the United States.

According to an Oxford Economics analysis commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, a 10 percent appreciation in the value of the dollar would result in about 0.2 percent fewer international visitors in 2015. If that appreciation maintained into next year, the drop would be closer to 2 percent, said David Huether, senior vice president of research at the group.

But the U.S. has competitive advantages, Huether said, including a cheaper cost of consumer goods and services compared to Europe and Japan. Plus, he said: “There’s one Miami, there’s one Grand Canyon, there’s one New York City.”

Visit Florida chief marketing officer Paul Phipps said that Florida’s amenities — especially its beaches and theme parks — are sold on experience rather than price, so he doesn’t expect a weaker euro or stronger dollar to discourage visitors.

“We haven’t really seen an effect from it,” Phipps said.

Huether said that the United States has not yet seen data showing a slowdown in inbound travel from overseas, though visitation outside the country has ticked up a little. He said one noticeable change has been in spending among international visitors, which was still growing through late 2014 but at a slower pace than in years past.

“What could be happening is they might be staying a shorter amount of time, maybe six instead of seven days,” he said.

Stacey Mitchell, director of sales for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, expects to see the same kind of change in spending patterns.

“Maybe they’ll buy two pairs of Adidas instead of three,” she said. “Maybe they will stay at a four-star instead of a five- star [hotel]. Maybe they’ll drop down on their dining options.”

But Mitchell, a self-described “currency nerd” who started wondering at the beginning of the year whether Europeans would back off from Florida travel, said she still expects to see plenty of international visitors.

At Florida Huddle last week, an event for the travel trade focused on inbound international tourism, she asked dozens of tour operators whether they are expecting to see a drop-off because of the weaker euro.

“Every single person said no,” she said.

They explained that Florida visitors were looking for sun and fun, but also for quality of goods and service, which travelers perceive as higher here than in Europe. The operators also told Mitchell that European travelers perceive the U.S. as a safe destination for family travel.

While she expects that some domestic travelers will head overseas instead of to Florida, Mitchell said she doesn’t expect that to be a severe blow.

“I don’t think there will be enough of a percentage to really hurt us so that we would feel it significantly,” she said.

Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she’s expecting growth from Europe despite the currency situation, especially because of new flights connecting Fort Lauderdale and several destinations overseas. Budget carrier Norwegian Air, for example, has said that it expects strong business to South Florida in the summer, when Europeans tend to take vacation time.

“The dollar is very important, but it’s not almighty like it used to be,” she said. “I think we’re going to have less impact this go-round than in the past.”

Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said European markets that had been flat in previous years finally started to show a recovery in 2014. But even if that doesn’t continue in 2015, Aedo said an improving U.S. economy is still good news to Miami-Dade, where more than half of its visitors were international in 2013.

“That means more domestic travelers will be traveling and they will have more money available to them to spend in luxury destinations like Miami,” he said. “Granted, there might be some folks that will look at Europe, but there will be as many if not more folks that will have more money in their pocket and will be able to take that vacation and come to Miami.”

Travel deal website Travelzoo said earlier this month that searches for trips to destinations where the dollar is stronger have shown year-over-year increases. Queries for travel to England, for example, increased 26 percent.

Gabe Saglie, Travelzoo’s senior editor, said that if U.S. travelers can find a good deal on airfare — still fairly pricey to overseas destinations — they’ll find plenty of value on the ground for things like meals, attraction tickets and other incidentals.

“Just knowing that once you’re there, getting around a city like London or Paris or Barcelona or Athens is going to be a lot more affordable than it’s been for a long time, that will be enough for that enthusiasm to build and translate to booking and actually going,” he said.

For artist Greg Pitts, who lives in Davie, the stronger economy and dollar all amount to a three-week summer vacation in Paris. Thanks to strong art sales, the 50-year-old said he’s already paid for his vacation, an improvement over the six days he was able to spend in the French capital last year.

“I had to really pinch pennies and try to watch and plan what we were going to do,” he said. “We had every dime accounted for.”

This year, he said, he’s looking forward to having more flexibility to explore and drop a little more cash: “Do nicer things, go to shows, take the train, go to London for the day.”

This report was supplemented with information from Bloomberg News. The article also includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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