MIAMI - Cooped-up tourists eager for a taste of Florida's sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and warmer climates are visiting the Sunshine State in droves, topping pre-pandemic levels in recent months.
Miami is one of the top search destinations on travel websites and statewide, Florida had 32.5 million travelers from July to September of this year, exceeding the number of visitors during that period in pre-pandemic 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis said recently.
The state was boosted by the Republican governor's pro-business, anti-lockdown and anti-mask restrictions all year, allowing one of Florida's main economic engines to flourish, even as tourism dipped in other parts of the country.
Now, as snowbirds have returned and others are making holidays travel plans, hotels and tourism experts report a noticeable bump. Miami — and Florida — have grown even more popular since borders were opened earlier this month to international travels, though plans and logistics could be upset by the emergence of the new COVID-19 omicron variant.
"The moment the borders and the flights were reopened in November, we started to see bookings from Europe and South America," said Milton Sgarbi, a vice president at 1 Hotel South Beach, one of Miami's most luxe oceanfront resorts.
"We had bachelorette parties, we had reunions, we had weddings, not as big as we used to have in the past, but small weddings almost every weekend. Last weekend, we had three weddings."
Despite the pandemic, the high-end hotel flourished in 2021 with leisure travelers. Normally, they see an even mix of business and leisure, but he expects the business market will pick up in 2022, along with the international tourists
Karen Aguilar came to Miami in November — just weeks after the borders reopened — to enjoy the sun from Bucaramanga, Colombia.
"You have to come and enjoy the views, the beaches, the people. It’s very friendly and yeah, I’ll be back," she said.
Miami and Florida typically have an even mix of domestic and international tourism, but with the borders closed because of COVID-19 in 2021, cities launched massive marketing campaigns courting U.S. tourists who were tired of being cooped up.
"Domestic tourism came back like gangbusters," said Rolando Aedo, of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We expanded our market share of domestic visitors driven partially by the fact that Florida and Miami were open when others weren’t and there was a lot of pent-up demand."
While much of the country was shut down, several new hotels opened up in Miami; airlines including Southwest and JetBlue added Miami routes for the first time; and Aedo said the nation's cruise capital of Miami broke ground on new port terminals to meet demand as several cruise lines, including Virgin, recently came onboard here.
Miami is also expanding as a destination: In addition to perenially popular South Beach, the burgeoning art district known as Wynwood has become a top draw. Wynwood officials estimate nearly 6 million visitors will have checked out the trendy area in 2021, up from roughly 5 million in 2020.
Chic new restaurants and boutique shops opened all year long in Wynwood, where most of the buildings and sidewalks are covered in grand technicolor murals. TripAdvisor even named Wynwood one of the coolest hipster destinations in the U.S.
Andrew Cronin, a resident of Orlando, Florida, has visited South Beach several times, but now says, "I do like coming a little bit more to Wynwood and Brickell because you really get to feel the real experience of Miami, like the heart of Miami."
The theme-park home of Orlando is always popular during tourist season, and now has big draws such as Disney's 50th anniversary celebration; new attractions including Peppa Pig Theme Park, which opens in February; and several new hotels.
"The holiday season is going to be strong for our destination," said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.
Advance bookings for Christmas and New Years in Orlando are at roughly 95% what they were during the holidays in 2019.
"As we look ahead, bookings for January and February are triple the volume we saw at this time last year," Matej said.
Across Florida, vacation rentals through the end of the year are trending over 42% higher than 2019, and seat capacity on domestic flights is nearly 4% higher, according to VISIT FLORIDA.
And 50 new hotels are slated to open throughout the Sunshine State by March.