How tourism impacts Miami

Visitors from around the world come to swim in Miami Beach’s tropical waters, experience the famed nightlife, and attend world renowned events like Art Basel and Ultra Music Festival. As one of the state and county’s most profitable industries, tourism revenues are essential to a healthy economy in Miami-Dade County, according to a recent Analysis of Current Economic Trends by the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory & Economic Resources.

More people are coming to Miami than ever before, according to MiamiDade.gov, as last year Miami International Airport carried more than 40 million passengers, setting a new annual record. Add to that the 4.8 million multi-day travelers who took cruises leaving from PortMiami. While many are just passing through, 14.6 million visitors stayed for at least one night in the Greater Miami area in 2014, spending money on lodging and shopping and visiting sights from Lincoln Road to the Everglades. For the first 9 months of 2015, visitation has been up by 7%, according to Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing and tourism at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The where and why

“Of people visiting Miami-Dade County, roughly half of all visitors are international, and half domestic. By percentage, we have more international visitors than any other part of the country,” according to Aedo. “I emphasize that because international travelers stay a lot longer, and spend more money, and that fuels a lot of other industries in terms of economic impact in Miami.”  

Last year, South Americans made up the majority of Miami’s international visitors, with Brazil leading the pack, followed by Canada, Colombia, Argentina, and Germany in that order. Domestically, most tourists came from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Atlanta, in that order. And one in four visitors came to Miami for the first time, according to a 2014 report by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“We’ve hosted a mix of people from all over. We’ve had people from Paris, Toronto, Lima, Taiwan, Germany, Latvia and people from the U.S.,” said Ed Hill, a Pinecrest resident who uses Airbnb to rent out a room in his home. “Right now we have someone from Brazil staying with us.”

Lincoln Road Mall on Miami Beach (Courtesy of ClickE/flickr Creative Commons)
Lincoln Road Mall on Miami Beach (Courtesy of ClickE/Flickr Creative Commons)

Most people who visited Miami did so for leisure and vacation purposes. This means that they were spending more money on hotels, restaurants, and recreational activities, with the most visited areas in South Beach, beaches in general, and Lincoln Road.

“We think of tourists as people coming to the beach, but we see more and more people coming to take advantage of the shopping, especially people from Latin America who want to buy things they can’t get at home,” Hill said. “A lot of people also want to go to the Everglades or go diving in the Florida Keys.”

Tourists spent an average of $279.48 a day and stayed an average of 5.86 nights. With total spending averaging $1,637.75 per person per visit, tourists spent an estimated $23.8 billion while visiting Miami, the majority spent on shopping and lodging.

When compared to other hotel markets around the world, Miami fared fifth in the country in terms of occupancy throughout the year, with a 78.3% occupancy rate — at least 10% greater than the state and national average.

“In our peak season, which starts in early December with Art Basel and goes through March, our average occupancy rate is about 80%,” according to May Mallouh, chief operating officer of The Vagabond Hotel in the Upper East Side. The Vagabond’s hotel and restaurant employs roughly 90 people year round. “We don’t adjust staffing a whole lot throughout the year — but in the busier season we might add extra housekeeping or front desk hours,” May said.

The tourism industry helps to diversify Miami’s investment portfolio, employing a significant number of people in the county, with 11.9% of all employees in Miami-Dade working in hospitality and leisure.

Changing the economy and the culture

“I think we all agree that tourism is Greater Miami’s No. 1 industry. It generates a huge amount of taxes which are reinvested into many of the city and state’s major projects,” Aedo said.

While tourism undoubtedly impacts the region’s economy, it also changes the political and cultural landscape of a city, according to tourism anthropologist, Dr. Kathleen Adams, a professor at Loyola University Chicago.

“Tourism can transform the way in which a local resident views their surroundings — by marking off spaces as ‘special’ through crafting narratives about those places, locals can appreciate those surroundings with new eyes,” she said. In this way, locals “come to feel a sense of local regional or ethnic pride and these are positive dynamics.”  

At times, tourist interest in places can even prompt the preservation of a culture or city, as in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi highland cities, where increased tourism opened the door for the region to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “transforming the area into a point of pride,” Adams added.

In the last 6 months, the GMCVB has begun promoting exploration into Miami’s cultural enclaves, including Little Havana, Little Haiti, and Hialeah. Cultural history excursions like Miami’s Black History Tours and Miami’s Cultural Community Tours are becoming increasingly popular, as visitors seek to engage with the local community, according to Cultural Tourism in the “Tropical Playground”: Issues of Exclusion and Development in Miami.  

But as these spaces are viewed by outside eyes and experienced by people from all over the world, officials want to ensure the areas are safe and well-resourced, instituting police forces and drawing property managers along with it. In small cultural enclaves like the predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, or Miami’s predominantly Cuban Little Havana, the “original magnets of tourism can be marginalized and pushed to less developed spaces,” Adams added. These are the cases in which tourism creates all the issues associated with gentrification. As visitors begin frequenting these neighborhoods, improvements move in, property values go up, and people are pushed out, according to Adams.

The way tourism can change a city is unique to each local and regional political landscape, but as developers come in, it’s important to engage with local community leaders to “find out what local stakeholders want to provide resources for things they need as the neighborhood is transformed through tourism,” Adams said.

And for tourists, the best way to visit a new place is to research destinations thoroughly and learn about local cultural classes, economics, and political issues. “Read beyond the tourist guide books, beyond the online brochures and dig into an urban history to prepare for the trip,” Adams said. “Try and patronize businesses that are locally owned by local community and … fosters meaningful interactions with local people.” Adams also suggested that tourists keep a journal and pay it forward back in their own home communities by giving a talk at a local school or library to share their experiences with people who may not be as fortunate to travel as they are.

“In its broadest sense, tourism is about people coming from one community into another — whether that’s for a day, a week, or 10 days. But if you zoom out and think about immigration and how Miami has evolved, it has been people coming from one community to another,” Aedo said. “Miami is a multicultural community with a combination of cultures, sights, and sounds. We want to celebrate our rich black, Caribbean, Hispanic communities — and that combination of cultures and flavors is at the top of the list of what people want to come and see”