Foreign passengers at Miami airport continue on upswing
By Tom Harlan
The number of foreign passengers arriving at Miami International Airport continues to rebound, according to local tourism experts.
Forty-seven percent of the 6.7 million passengers using the airport from January to May were international travelers.
A total 3.2 million visitors arrived in the first five months of this year - a 13% increase from the 2.8 million a year earlier, said officials from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Each visitor adds about $900 to the local economy, visitors bureau officials said.
International passenger arrivals are a good indicator of an upswing in tourism because 96% of Miami-Dade County's visitors travel by air, said William Talbert III, the bureau's president and CEO.
International visitors typically come from Europe and South America, Mr. Talbert said. The European market has been growing more than the South American one for a variety of reasons - including a strengthening of the euro, which lowers the cost for Europeans to come to the US, he said.
Summer months are particularly strong with South American visitors, Mr. Talbert said, because it's winter south of the equator.
Major tour operators who bring Brazilian tourists in large groups report that those tourists are starting to return to the area, he said. Last year, 381,241 Brazilians visited Miami, a 6% decrease from 2002, according to bureau statistics.
Brazilians are big spenders who enjoy upscale accommodations, dining and shopping, Mr. Talbert said, adding that they also prefer a destination that caters to their needs and allows them to speak Portuguese and Spanish.
"South Americans are more comfortable in Miami than anywhere else in the country," Mr. Talbert said. "They have been visiting the area for years and feel welcome here."
Greater Miami consistently has been a top-three US destination for international visitors, Mr. Talbert said, adding that Miami International often shares the top ranking with JFK International Airport in New York and LaGuardia International Airport in Los Angeles.
Miami maintains its popularity with international travelers because it continuously updates and reinvents itself, Mr. Talbert said, adding that many new chain hotels have opened since 1999 such as Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and Conrad.
Miami also has a large number of boutique hotels, which offer tourists a great mix of hotel products, he said.
The bureau cut back its administration after 9/11 but kept its sales force in place and launched a marketing campaign to encourage tourism 25 days after the terrorist attacks, he said. "And we haven't stopped selling aggressively," he said.
The bureau met with travel agents on international trips in Latin America and Europe to promote visiting Miami in the summer. The current numbers signal that the aggressive marketing programs are starting to pay off, Mr. Talbert said.
Greater Miami is a top selection for international business planners, who choose the area because it offers groups an international ambience, Mr. Talbert said, adding that 15% of spending by visitors can be attributed to business meetings.
Groups such as the Latin American Aeronautical Association have had more than 1,000 attendees at conferences in Miami-Dade this summer. And many higher-end hotels cater to those types of associations because the business traveler spends a lot of money, he said.
While is rebounding, international arrivals are still down 4.8% and total arrivals down 11.4% at Miami International since the terrorism attacks in September 2001, according to bureau statistics.
Airport officials expect arrivals to recover to pre-9/11 levels in 2006 or 2007, Mr. Talbert said, adding that the current numbers appear to be ahead of the airport's projections.
"We're not fully out of the woods yet," he said. "But the numbers speak for themselves."