ORLANDO, Fla. — A vacation in Orlando is almost a rite of passage for some well-off Brazilians who often bring back suitcases filled with electronics and clothes that are cheaper in Florida than they are at home.
But store manager Julio Martins has seen fewer of them this year at his Brazil Center Electronics store in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district. He said their dwindling numbers have been “tough, very tough.” Brazilian tourists ordinarily make up about 80 percent of the store’s clientele.
“If an ordinary tourist buys a bottle of cologne, a Brazilian customer will buy 10 bottles of cologne because of the difference in price between here and there,” said Martins, whose store sells cameras, watches and makeup.
Even before Orlando’s summer of tragedies — the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the death of a toddler by an alligator, the slaying of a former singer from “The Voice” — some tourism indicators were declining in the most-visited city in America. Hotel occupancy rates were down 2.5 percent for the year through July, and the number of hotel rooms sold had dropped almost 2 percent from the previous year.
Recession and political turmoil in Brazil and a weak Canadian dollar have played roles in the softening market, since those nations are Orlando’s top sources of international tourists. But increases in ticket pricing at Walt Disney World also have resulted in lower attendance at some of Orlando’s most popular theme parks, and local officials are keeping a wary eye on whether there’s any impact from Zika cases in South Florida.
Earlier this year, Disney started using a tiered system to charge more for single-day tickets during the busiest periods, such as winter break or on weekends. At Walt Disney World’s most popular theme park, Magic Kingdom, a single-day ticket is now $105 during slow periods and $124 on peak days. For Disney World’s three other parks, prices for single-day tickets now range from $97 to $114.
Company officials say they’re comfortable trading smaller crowds for higher prices.
“We have taken a number of steps … to essentially grow revenue, in some cases, actually, at the expense of some attendance where we are changing our pricing approach ,” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in May during an earnings call.
The pricing changes irk some longtime Disney World fans, even if they result in less crowded parks.
“They’re getting a little greedy about it,” said Erik Paul, an Orlando resident and Disney World annual pass-holder.
Orlando hasn’t caught a break from bad headlines. Just last week, a Turkish professor on his honeymoon was fatally shot outside a hotel in the first murder of a tourist in recent memory in Orlando’s tourist district.
Orlando has broken visitor records in the past two years and attracted 66 million visitors last year. But this is the first time in at least three years that the city has seen declines in hotel occupancy rates or rooms sold, according to STR, an analytics firm which tracks hotel data.
Visit Orlando, the area’s tourism association, estimates that Brazilian visitors are down 25 percent, while visitors from Canada are up only a paltry 1 or 2 percent. Statewide, the number of Canadians dipped 3.5 percent during the first half of the year.
“2015 was truly a banner year, capping off six consecutive years of demand growth. A pause was likely and is not surprising,” said George Aguel, CEO of Visit Orlando, who added in an email that room demand is expected to grow 3 percent next year. “So while market conditions appear to have softened a bit, our industry remains healthy and the outlook for the destination is positive.”
Despite the softening of the hotel market, passenger traffic at Orlando International Airport is up by about 10 percent for the first half of the year.
University of Central Florida hospitality professor Ady Milman said that rise also captures local residents who are flying more frequently, not just tourists. New flights to Latin America and Dubai also have made the airport more of a connecting point than in the past, accounting for some of the increase, Aguel said.
It’s still too early to measure the full impact on tourism of the tragic headlines that came out of Orlando this summer, although Aguel says consumer research has shown no influence. In the space of a week in June, 49 patrons were massacred at the Pulse nightclub, a 2-year-old toddler from Nebraska was killed by an alligator at Walt Disney World and singer Christina Grimmie was gunned down at an Orlando concert venue.
Any impact will likely be short-lived, Milman said.
“If you look at the history of tragic events, airline disasters, for example … the public forgets,” Milman said.
Health officials are investigating cases of Zika in South Florida and the St. Petersburg area. Aguel says that doesn’t appear to be affecting advance bookings to Orlando. But even though there are no incidents of mosquito-transmitted Zika in central Florida, tourists’ potential concerns over Zika shouldn’t be underestimated, said Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida’s hospitality management college.
“You may say, ‘Well, we don’t have any incidents in Orlando,’ but people don’t know geography,” Pizam said. “They say if it happens in one place in Florida, why wouldn’t it happen elsewhere?”