Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tourism Numbers Plunge in South Florida

From the Desk of King in Miami

Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald

Tourism continues to worsen in Miami-Dade, with hotel taxes dropping faster in February than they did in January.

Taxes charged on hotel guests plunged 24 percent in February, compared to a 17 percent drop in January. The continued deterioration comes as hotels slash rates to fill beds and businesses pull back on travel.

''For me, it was no boat show,'' said Kevin McLaney, general manager of the Oceans Five Hotel in South Beach. February's Miami International Boat Show usually brings a windfall to hotels, but big events -- including December's Art Basel fair -- have yielded disappointing visitor counts this winter and spring.

Aside from being a key barometer for South Florida's largest industry, Miami-Dade's hotel taxes have attracted extra attention because of their role in the Marlins stadium debate. About 90 percent of the county's $442 million construction debt for the new ballpark would be funded with hotel taxes over the next 40 years.

In the midst of the debate, County Manager George Burgess took the unusual step of releasing the January report on hotel taxes to reporters himself. Though typically available at the beginning of the month, February's numbers were made public the day after county commissioners gave final approval for the stadium bonds Tuesday afternoon.

''This information was available. And I'm pretty sure it was withheld,'' said Commissioner Carlos Gimenez.

Gimenez said he requested February's numbers before Tuesday's meeting but was told by county tax collectors that the report was not ready for release. On Wednesday morning, the tax collector's office released six elaborate spread sheets containing detailed information about the five special taxes Miami-Dade collects at hotels and restaurants.

Victoria Mallette, a spokeswoman for Burgess, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

With February's declines, hotel taxes are down 13 percent for the budget year that began in October. Under the county's stadium plan, two taxes charged only at mainland hotels would be used for stadium bonds through 2033. Those revenues are down 16 percent for the year after dropping 28 percent in February.

Burgess has until July 1 to decide if tourism has worsened to the point that hotel taxes will not be able to fund the stadium debt. He has proposed two financing plans that would use between $1.8 billion and $2 billion of hotel taxes to pay off stadium bonds through 2049.

In Broward, hotel taxes dropped 20 percent, leaving the county down $1.5 million or about 13 percent from 2008 levels.

February's decline means hotel taxes have dropped $2 million since October in Miami-Dade. That 13 percent drop for the budget year is much better than the 21 percent decline at the same time in 2002, when hotels were suffering from fall-out from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But February's numbers also mark a milestone for this tourism downturn, since February is the first month to post a steeper decline than the drop in that month after the 2001 terrorist attacks. In February 2002, hotel taxes dropped 12 percent.

''I don't see, at this point, a light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association.

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