Orlando, Florida (eTN) – Key figures in the public and private sectors in Florida tourism gather in Orlando, showcasing the Sunshine State’s travel suppliers to the world’s top international and domestic buyers.

Amid the worsening recession, tourism stakeholders expressed confidence with riding out this financial storm they think will go well into early 2010-2011.

Florida’s magical city of Orlando isn’t immune from the tourism economy meltdown despite the giant parks and lines of affordable hotels. Gary Sain, president and CEO, Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Orlando has traditionally received 50 million visitors, including 3 million overseas, each year. He said: “Orlando remains one of the most popular destinations all over the world. However lately, Orlando has received fewer visitors than previous years. This 2009, we may be seeing 4.85 million less people coming into the city with 500,000 to 1 million foreigners drop off from last year.”

Despite the recession and visitors’ number decline, the city maintains over 100 attractions, 160,000 accommodations (hotels, vacation homes, thrift resorts), 25,000 vacation homes and 21,000 timeshare units. On top, Gain said $2.2 billion has been pumped into the attractions/hotel infrastructure sector to include new attractions in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios. A golf academy, new spas, a multi-million dollar outlet mall and food and beverage outlets will be added. “We will try to get our visitors down here easier, at least on one-stop or non-stop which makes a lot of sense, such as TAM Airlines’ opening of the Sao Paolo, Brazil route, and direct flights to Orlando by Mexicana, Jet Blue from Bogota, increased service from London on British Airways, Manchester on Virgin Atlantic, and Frankfurt on Lufthansa,” he said.

Regardless the decrease in tourist traffic, Orlando soon welcomes huge hotel investments to the tune of $1 billion with the opening of the first Waldorf-Astoria outside New York, a new 15,000-room Hilton and a 750-room expansion of the Peabody. “We’re doing this despite the recession as we prepare to build our conventions and meetings business well into 2032,” said Sain.

In 2009, Orlando will see a rise in new attractions and changes at Orlando’s major theme parks. SeaWorld Orlando will unveil a brand new roller coaster in the summer, Manta, where riders will seamlessly transition from watching rays in underwater flight to the sensation of actually being one. Disney’s Hollywood Studios will showcase vocal talent with its new American Idol attraction, where guests can watch, vote and perform just like on the television series. Universal Studios Florida will open Hollywood’s Rip, Ride, Rockit, the most technologically advanced roller coaster in the world in the spring.

The CVB’s chair said they remain committed to promoting the city to all international, as well as domestic visitors, in this slowdown.

Visit Florida’s executive vice president for sales and marketing, Eileen Forrow said that they continue to market the state to over 144 countries worldwide (not 22 countries as reported by the Department of Commerce), though there is indeed a challenge over the past weeks with budget. “Due to the jet fuel price surge, airlines folding-up and airline retrenchments in the months of 2008, there were fewer air seats to Florida. Some 50 percent of our visitors come by air; half come by car or RV’s (about 40 million). In the midst of the recession, we think these issues can be resolved through consolidation of international and domestic carriers through airline mergers; and airlines creating the demand for the route,” she said, adding they just spent $3 million in coop-programs with Southwest Airlines and Air Tran to create the demand for Florida.

Although Florida is not quite the bargain it was a few months ago and with the dollar gaining ground against the Pound, the Euro and the Loonie, the show must go on. “With this economy impacting our visitors, we are still a remarkable value. We’ve been adapting messages, modifying our media mix and integrating our advertising, PR and sales efforts to target the right market with the right message. Yes – because it’s now like people have to be given permission to take a vacation because it is now a luxury,” she said.

Visit Florida can never ignore the foreign feeder markets. Florida’s overseas visitors stay longer and spend more (11 nights stays and over $3000 per trip) in contrast with domestic visitors staying 5 nights and spending $150 per day on average. Through 2007-2008, overseas visitors went up by 13.7 percent roughly 4.6 million visitors representing 5.5 percent of visitations. For the first quarter of 2008, overseas increased by 2 percent; second quarter increased by 8 percent; third quarter increased by 3 percent. “Throughout 2008’s three quarters, Florida’s looking at 5.9 million international arrivals topped by Canada 2.281M translating into a 15.5 percent increase over the previous year; some .3 million came by air, 943,00 came by non-air. We’re on track with Canadian visitors to Florida,” said Forrow.

Florida benefited after 9/11. “With the domestic traffic not leaving the country anymore, not even going to the Caribbean, people would say we’re not taking a vacation this year. We’re just going to Florida. With great optimism we hope this is happening this time around in 2009,” added Forrow, saying she cannot predict the future ahead but she knows the Sunshine State is a destination that knows how to adapt.

Sain said Orlando will be enhancing its core brand tag ‘where relationships thrive’ which makes Orlando different from Vegas, New York, LA, Dubai etc…along with value for money or affordability. He added China and India can become Orlando’s biggest feeder markets in the not-so-distant future, while they bump up their business in the new offices opened in Brazil and Argentina.

And despite the copycat Dubai has become in imitating Orlando’s mega attractions, Sain said they don’t feel threatened with this competition although they may cut into Orlando’s UK family market slice. “We’re looking at 3 to 4 years from now Dubai to build infrastructure and become what we are today. And with this recession, there will be delays. They have a different market. US domestic visitors will not travel to Dubai anyway to go to their SeaWorld, Universal or Dubailand,” he said adding to prepare they’d need to understand Dubai’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of luring the European and Asian visitors.

At the 2009 Florida Huddle held in Orlando, over 189 companies are represented. Over 314 individual properties, recreation facilities and transportation companies participate alongside 212 buyers, 32 percent of whom are matched with suppliers, said Lynn Warren, President of Huddle International LLC. Next year’s event will be in the city of St. Petersburg/ Clearwater, the venue for Honda Grand Prix in April 2009, and the home of America’s number one beach on Caladesi Island, according to the acclaimed Dr. Beach.