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North Central Florida Will Help Fuel Florida's Record High Tourism

North Central Florida's natural environment is part of the ecotourism that is poised to attract a record number of visitors to the state this year.
North Central Florida's natural environment is part of the ecotourism that is poised to attract a record number of visitors to the state this year.

With a record 100 million visitors this year, tourism is Florida's prime industry.

The increasing demand in tourism affects the entire state, not just the usual tourist hot spots.  Orlando is typically one of the most visited cities or top visited city in the U.S., but every region manages to get a share of the visitors.

Gainesville and Ocala are no exceptions.

John Pricher, the executive director at Visit Gainesville, said there has been an increase in Gainesville’s bed tax collection for tourism, with hotels being the biggest indicators of this growth.

In 2014, bed tax collection increased 4 percent. In 2015, it increased 7 percent.

The Innovation Hub at the University of Florida has brought more visitors to Gainesville, Pricher said.

“When these tech companies and these incubators start to mature, we see more and more of that type of market emerging for us,” he said.

There are new hotels being proposed and being built. Pricher said there is a proposed hotel downtown in the final stages of contracts and negotiations with the city. Also, a hotel is being constructed in the Celebration Pointe Project.

“So the market is growing and we are starting to see more of those types of properties coming online,” Pricher said. “I think it’s a pretty well rounded market, and it can continue to grow because there is room and capacity.”

Alyssa Brown, director of communications and marketing at the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, said that the proposed hotels and the ones under construction bring more jobs related to construction, marketing online and hospitality once these hotels start operating.

"The fact that those projects are underway indicates that developers feel that there is a demonstrated need for more capacity for lodging," Brown said. "There is room for growth here and there is a need for more hotel occupancy."

Marion County and Ocala have also experienced some growth. Sky Wheeler, the sales and operations manager at the Ocala-Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the number of people staying in hotels has increased in the last two years.

“We are pacing really well,” Wheeler said. “There is a new hotel currently under construction in the Dunnellon area. It’s the first major flagship hotel that is going there, and it’s going to create new jobs for Marion County.”

The Comfort Suites hotel is expected to open in 2016.

Marion County also attracts business travel from abroad because of its strong emphasis on the equine industry. During the first four months of the year, people who visit come to equestrian events and breeder sales, she said.

The majority of leisure travelers come from within Florida or the Southeast, and they are primarily interested in ecotourism and outdoor activities such as nature walks, biking or the springs.

“When you think of the state of Florida, you may not necessarily think of our part of the state of Florida," Wheeler said. "But when you think of equine or you think of ecotourism and you think of Florida, Ocala, Marion County really resonates with that kind of traveler."

Victoria is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org