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Sen. Bill Nelson visits to speak on threats to the Florida tourist economy

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Sen. Bill Nelson said to the crowd. “Our brand is sunshine. It’s sea breezes, white sand beaches, it’s family-friendly theme parks, and world-class fishing and seafood. When red tide comes along, or toxic algae, if it closes a beach, tourism dollars go elsewhere. Hurricanes, oil spills, sea level rise and Zika threaten our brand.”

Nelson addressed politicians, community leaders and citizens on August 10, when the University of South Florida St. Petersburg hosted the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee field hearing: “Threats Facing Florida’s Tourism Driven Economy.”

The purpose of the hearing was to examine factors damaging Florida’s tourism-based economy and to discuss possible solutions. Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, Pinellas County Board of County Commission Chair Janet Long, and Mayors George Cretekos and Rick Kriseman were in attendance.

“Tourism is vital to our economy here in St. Pete, and to cities big and small throughout the state of Florida,” Kriseman said. Throughout the hearing, witnesses gave testimony on a myriad of factors that are damaging the tourism-driven economy while proposing possible solutions or mitigations.

Testimony was given by Associate Dean for Research at the University of Florida Sherry Larkin, President of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service, Inc. Mitchell Roffer, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce Robin Sollie, and the co-owner of Tampa’s Mise en Place and U.S. Travel Association and Brand USA board member Maryann Ferenc.

Larkin’s testimony promoted the need for increased infrastructure in tourist areas, support for technological innovations, the protection of wildlife, and control over the spread of invasive species. Ferenc’s testimony focused on the need to modernize airports, promote the U.S. as a travel destination, and reduce government interference with air travel. Sollie stressed the dangers of oil drilling, natural disasters, beach erosion, sea level rise and the Zika virus. Sollie also advocated for increased investment in transportation systems, as well as agencies that promote Florida as a tourist destination.

Roffer’s testimony focused on the impact of climate change on the tourism economy. Roffer warned of declining water quality in Florida, and the degradation and destruction of Florida habitats. He predicts that declining availability and quality of water, accompanying climate change, will be the biggest issues in the future. Nelson too, was concerned.

“Over the course of the last 40 years … the seas in southeast Florida have risen five to eight inches,” Nelson said. “In fact, the people of southeast Florida are getting desensitized to this because they’re seeing it on the 6 o’clock news … but what I found in other parts of Florida, is that it’s ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind.’” Castor also commented on the impact of climate change on Florida tourism.

“If we don’t act now to get ahead of this, we are going to be facing a very difficult future,” Castor said. “Climate threats to Florida mount, and this is the challenge of our time.”

 

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson talked to Connect following the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee field hearing. Watch to hear Nelson’s comments on the priorities of Congress, Nelson’s main concerns, and what he considers to be the most important considerations for USFSP students in particular.

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