History of Tourism in Florida

The history of tourism in Florida is a fascinating journey that has evolved over centuries. Florida’s tourism industry has grown from modest beginnings to become one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States. In fact, a recent survey in 2022 found that Florida was the number one visited state in America.

Here’s an overview of the key milestones in the history of tourism in Florida:

Early Exploration and Settlement (16th-18th centuries):

Florida’s history as a tourist destination began with the arrival of Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, including Juan Ponce de León who is often associated with the quest for the Fountain of Youth.

Spanish settlements were established in Florida, and the state’s subtropical climate and lush landscapes began to attract explorers and settlers.

Railroads and the 19th Century:

The development of railroads in the late 19th century played a crucial role in Florida’s tourism industry. Rail lines connected the state to the northern U.S., making it more accessible to tourists.

Before the widespread construction of railroads, Florida was relatively isolated for travelers, especially those coming from northern states.

Traveling to Florida by horse-drawn carriage or by boat was time-consuming and often arduous. Railroads made the state much more accessible to tourists by providing a faster and more reliable means of transportation.

Railroad companies actively promoted Florida as a vacation destination. They distributed brochures, maps, and travel guides that highlighted the state’s natural beauty, mild climate, and recreational opportunities. These marketing efforts helped create awareness and interest among potential visitors.

The railroads helped extend the tourist season in Florida. While the state had always been a winter destination due to its warm climate, rail travel made it easier for tourists to visit during other times of the year, increasing overall tourism numbers.

Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida in 1895

Entrepreneurs like Henry Flagler played a significant role in developing Florida’s east coast by extending his Florida East Coast Railway to cities like St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami and building luxurious hotels and resorts along the rail lines.

These hotels, such as the Ponce de León Hotel and the Royal Poinciana Hotel, catered to affluent tourists, further boosting Florida’s reputation as a tourist destination.

The Rise of Miami (Early 20th century):

Miami’s strategic location and beautiful beaches attracted tourists and the city began to grow as a tourism hub in the early 20th century.

The construction of the Tamiami Trail, a road linking Tampa and Miami, in 1928 further facilitated tourism by making it easier for visitors to access the region.

Miami, Florida

Miami’s year-round tropical climate, with warm winters and hot summers, made it an attractive destination year-round. Visitors enjoy outdoor activities and water sports, such as swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, and water skiing, throughout the year.

Post-World War II Boom (Mid-20th century):

After World War II, Florida experienced a population boom, and tourism continued to grow as returning veterans and families flocked to the state.

The United States experienced a period of economic prosperity after World War II and this economic growth led to increased disposable income and allowed more people to afford vacations and second homes in Florida.

The post-war era also saw extensive infrastructure development in Florida. The construction of highways, such as the Florida Turnpike, and the expansion of the Interstate Highway System made it easier for people to access the state. Improved transportation links encouraged migration and tourism.

The opening of attractions like Walt Disney World in 1971 and Universal Studios in the 1990s further expanded Florida’s appeal as a family-friendly destination.

Space Exploration (20th century):

Florida’s Space Coast, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, became a unique attraction, drawing tourists interested in space exploration and shuttle launches.

The space-related attractions draw tourists from around the world, making tourism an important component of the Space Coast’s economy.

Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida

With the growth of the commercial space industry, Florida is positioning itself as a future hub for space tourism, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin planning to offer suborbital spaceflights from the state.

Beaches, Theme Parks, and Beyond (Contemporary era):

Florida’s stunning beaches, warm climate, and diverse ecosystems continue to attract tourists, with destinations like Key West, the Florida Keys, and the Everglades being popular choices.

Florida is home to world-renowned theme parks, including Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, and LEGOLAND Florida Resort. These attractions draw visitors of all ages from around the globe.

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

The growth of cruise tourism has also made Florida a leading embarkation point for cruise ships heading to the Caribbean and beyond.

Ecotourism and Outdoor Adventures:

Florida’s natural beauty has led to the rise of ecotourism, with opportunities for birdwatching, kayaking, snorkeling, and wildlife exploration in places like the Everglades and the Florida Keys.

Ecotourism and outdoor adventures in Florida offer visitors the opportunity to explore the state’s diverse natural landscapes and wildlife while engaging in environmentally responsible and sustainable activities.

Florida’s rich ecosystems, including wetlands, forests, beaches, and swamps, make it an ideal destination for ecotourism and outdoor enthusiasts. Activities include swamp tours, scuba diving, surfing and fishing.

Cultural and Arts Tourism:

Florida offers a diverse range of cultural attractions that reflect the state’s rich history, multicultural influences, and vibrant arts scene. Whether you’re interested in history, art, music, or literature, Florida has something to offer.

Florida’s cultural attractions, including museums, theaters, historic sites and music festivals, have also become magnets for cultural tourists.

Interior of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida

Florida’s tourism industry has faced challenges such as hurricanes and economic downturns. However, it continues to adapt and evolve, remaining a vital part of the state’s economy and identity.

Florida’s combination of natural beauty, cultural attractions, and entertainment options ensures that it will remain a popular destination for tourists for years to come.

“Florida is the most visited US state by foreigners.” AMG International Realty, amgintrealty.com/florida-is-the-most-visited-us-state-by-foreigners/
“Most visited states by adults in the United States as of September 2022.” Statista, statista.com/statistics/1378808/most-visited-states-us/
Porter, Charlotte M. “Natural History & Early Tourism in Florida.” Florida Museum, floridamuseum.ufl.edu/naturalists/tourism/
“History of Tourism in Florida.” Florida Department of State, dos.myflorida.com/library-archives/research/explore-our-resources/florida-history-culture-and-heritage/tourism/

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