More than 31 million people visited Florida during the first quarter of 2020. By the second quarter, that number had plunged to less than 13 million as Covid-19 spread across the United States, state figures show.
Florida’s tourism industry showed signs of a strong recovery in 2022, with the number of visitors hitting 36 million during the first quarter.
So what impact does tourism have on Florida’s natural environment? I discussed that question with Dr. David Rivera Jr., director of the Hospitality and Tourism program and chair of the Business Administration Department at Flagler College.
Losing Florida: What kind of efforts do tourism businesses use to help the environment? Do they put in any effort?
Rivera: There are some that are very dedicated to having some sort of sustainability plan in place. For instance, some restaurants try to move away from products that are going to break down the environment, or can be harmful, like the transition of going away from cow and going towards plant-based meats.
However, there’s more businesses working under the illusion they’re a completely eco-friendly entity. There’s fewer that are truly dedicated to being eco-friendly, sustainable. At the end of the day, they’re trying to increase their profit margins.
People also tend to neglect that the more people who come, the more foot traffic we get. Which results in damaged roads, and more electricity and water usage. Even with those efforts, you’ll find it’s not beneficial for the environment. We need more foot traffic to be profitable. Hotels are the same, like with low flow showers. In doing those things, they want 100 percent occupancy.
Losing Florida: What is your experience with tourism-based businesses?
Rivera: My experience with tourism-based businesses goes back to my days before being in academia as a career. I started working within the food and beverage industry at several large chain restaurants, as well as working at various tourist attractions in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area. I also worked with two large hotel chains.
After working for about 10 years in the hospitality and tourism industry, I decided to transition to the educational side of things because I felt it offered the best of both worlds.
Now, I am able to help students transition from classroom to career within the Hospitality and Tourism industry practitioners through collaborations on our Hospitality and Tourism Advisory Board, providing consulting, and conducting research projects to show students how to identify, critically thing, and move forward to solve industry related problems.
Losing Florida: Do you think the efforts have an actual impact?
Rivera: The tourism agencies that I feel really good about are the St. Augustine ECO Tours. Everything they do is from the perspective of sustainability. They try to limit how often they go out, with low numbers, they do an educational piece, and they try not to interfere with the environment.
Other places here in St. Augustine that rely on promotion of natural resources of the area do some things, but not enough. St. Augustine always talks about its beautiful natural resources, but then they push something like Nights of Lights. One of the things they are trying to combat is the Old Town Trolleys, where they have the best eco-friendly trolly in place and it’s a mass transportation system. They take an active natural role for St. Augustine, and they’re conscious about that.
Losing Florida: What more can tourism businesses do?
Rivera: First thing they need to do is a self-evaluation on what they’re doing now. Looking at their strengths and weaknesses. Second, looking at where they aspire to be, maybe pick one goal, because doing that is better than nothing. And third, they try to operate on their own, formally cooperatives.
Four or five businesses that see it as being expensive can work together with their fellow operations to lower their costs, and then they’re increasing their purchasing power.
We have a lot of small businesses that aren’t being supported as much. We should implement incubator programs to keep these small businesses and to keep them alive.
Losing Florida: What do you think about the businesses that are constantly popping up?
Rivera: Time standpoint, you look at roads and stuff, St. Augustine is still kind of back in time. Roads are kind of small, and there’s not a lot of parking. That’s what makes this place charming. The more businesses you add and change the landscape, the more you’re changing a potential money driver for us.
People aspect, we’re putting ourselves in danger in event of hurricanes, or other natural disasters. The more you’re taking away these wetlands, the more you’re increasing these floods, because there’s nowhere this water can go. If we continue to build things and take over, we’re endangering people.
From the money aspect, the profitability will come. People just don’t know when enough is enough.
Interview by Mattison Hansen. Photo credit: St. Augustine ECO Tours.