Originally created 09/21/03

Tourists cut back on travel expenses



MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - Two years ago, tourists at the News Cafe on South Beach's trendy main drag ran up big checks, ordering juicy steaks and pricey bottles of champagne.

Now, diners from out of town are scrimping on their spending, usually getting cheaper fare such as salads and coffee.

"The economy's tough," manager Michael Jack said on a recent day when the cafe was doing brisk business despite heavy rains. "I can't do anything about that."

Many businesses dependent on tourists are reporting similar stories at a time when a record number of visitors are coming to Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush and other officials tout the increase as a signthat the industry is recovering, but tourism officials around Florida say these same visitors are spending less because of worries about job security and terrorism. Many businesses, theme parks and hotels find they have to offer deep discounts to lure visitors, further cutting into their profits.

For Anne-Louis Belanger and Manuel Baca-Soto, who recently spent nine days visiting South Beach from Montreal, lower prices were just fine with them. The couple came during the offseason in August to save a bit on their bed and breakfast. They stayed out of restaurants, instead buying groceries to conserve cash.

"It's not very expensive that way," Mr. Baca-Soto said.

The number of visitors to Florida has more than recovered from the decline after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The figure in 2002 hit a record 75.5 million, beating the previous high of 72.8 million set in 2000. For the first half of this year, 38.2 million people visited Florida, 1 percent more than a year earlier.

But they spent an average of about $677 each last year, down 3 percent from about $699 in 2000 and more than 7 percent from about $730 in 2001. Officials said that trend is seen in other tourist destinations across the nation.

"Just about everybody in the country is down from two years ago," said William Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.