Orlando seeks 'bounce' from South American tourists

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrapped up his first South American trade mission during the weekend, a week-long journey in which he led a delegation of nearly 200 of the state's civic and business leaders to Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

The trip was devoted to strengthening business ties between Florida and South America in industries such as biofuel production and aircraft manufacturing. But ethanol isn't the only thing brewing in South America.

Tourists are, too.

New projections from the U.S. Commerce Department conclude that South America will be the fastest-growing region in the world for travel to the United States during the next five years.

The number of travelers visiting the U.S. from South America is expected to soar 33 percent by 2011, to nearly 2.6 million people. Travel from Europe, by contrast, which is the biggest source of overseas visitors to the U.S., is expected to grow 25 percent over the same period, though to a much larger total of 12.6 million.

Five of the 10 countries with the fastest-growing U.S. travel, according to the Commerce Department forecast, will be in South or Latin America: Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Any bounce in South American travel is bound to be good news for Orlando's tourism industry, which has long courted the region. Tourism operators say travelers from Brazil, South America's largest country by far, are particularly coveted because they historically spend more shopping and at attractions than visitors from other countries.

Walt Disney World does some of its heaviest overseas marketing in South and Latin America. Brazil is one of its top five target countries, said Vicki Johnson, a spokeswoman for Disney Destinations. Last month, Disney sent a delegation of representatives to Rio de Janeiro for a travel trade show.

Universal Orlando has two year-round representatives in Brazil. "Latin America is a strong market of interest for us, with excellent potential," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.

SeaWorld Orlando's corporate parent, Busch Entertainment Corp., likewise keeps a full-time representative in Brazil. Janeche Petrou, a sales and marketing director for Busch's Florida parks, just last week concluded a two-week trip to Brazil, Argentina and Peru, where she met with local tour operators and travel writers.

The big theme parks aren't the only ones marketing in South America, either. Orlando Premium Outlets, which is owned by Simon Property Group, in September helped host more than 300 travel agents from Brazil during a "familiarization tour" of Central Florida. The outlet also advertises in a host of Latin American countries and makes sure to keep employees on hand who are fluent in Portuguese, Brazil's official language.

As recently as 2000, Brazil was Orlando's No. 2 country of origin for overseas tourists, sending 192,000 travelers to Central Florida that year. Even then, however, the market was starting to tail off badly as Brazil suffered through economic turmoil, and matters only worsened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Just 74,000 Brazilians visited Orlando in 2004, according to the most recent data available from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Michele Rothstein, a spokeswoman for Orlando Premium Outlets, said the outlet has recently begun to see an increase in Brazilian customers as part of an overall jump in international traffic to the area.

"This was a strong summer in visitors from Brazil," Rothstein said.

For Orlando to truly tap into the expected growth in South American travelers, however, those tourists will need more links to Orlando International Airport, tourism officials say. No airline currently flies nonstop between OIA and South America. But there are signs interest in such routes is growing.

Panama-based Copa Airlines this summer added two weekly flights, to 12 in all, between OIA and its hub in Panama City, through which it provides one-stop service to three dozen South American cities. The carrier is also in the midst of shifting all of its Orlando service to larger jets. The net effect, say OIA officials, will be to double the number of seats available on Copa flights between Orlando and Panama City.

Copa carried nearly 58,000 passengers to and from Orlando through August of this year. That nearly matches the 60,000 it carried through all of 2006.

"What they have done is they have made Orlando, in a sense, their gateway," said Vicki Jaramillo, OIA's marketing director.

In addition, JetBlue Airways recently announced that it is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin daily nonstop flights to Bogota, Colombia, from both Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. If the federal agency approves, the Orlando-Bogota flights would begin around April 1.

Backers are expected to begin reaching out this month to Central Florida's political and business leaders -- from Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to Disney -- in hopes of persuading them to lobby the DOT on JetBlue's behalf.

Bryan Baldwin, a JetBlue spokesman, said the airline was drawn to the routes because of its success in flying to Caribbean markets. It also sees lots of growth potential throughout the Americas, he said.

"That's kind of an open market. It's really maturing and really growing," Baldwin said.

OIA is actively wooing carriers from other South American countries, too.

Airport executives invited representatives from Brazilian carrier TAM S.A., along with those from several other lines, to watch the recent launch of the shuttle Discovery at Kennedy Space Center. They also spent 30 minutes meeting with TAM route planners at an airport convention in Stockholm, Sweden, earlier this year.

TAM, along with most other major South American carriers, already flies to Miami International Airport. But it is interested enough in the Orlando market that it has chartered buses to carry its passengers between Miami and Orlando during particularly busy periods.

No announcement concerning air service is imminent, though. "Route development is a marathon, not a sprint," OIA's Jaramillo said.

CONTACT: Jason Garcia can be reached at jrgarcia@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5414.

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