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OKALOOSA ISLAND — A country hungry to escape "Fauciville" and vacation in a place where mask mandates don't exist and vaccine passports aren't allowed brought record numbers of visitors to Florida in 2021, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis arrived at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island on Tuesday afternoon armed with tourism revenue estimates for the fourth quarter of 2021. He announced that 117 million domestic visitors had come to Florida during the year, a number he boasted was the highest level of domestic visitation in the history of the state.
"So many people that visited here felt the need to escape the burden of where (they're) at, the mandates and the lockdowns," the governor said. "They wanted to experience freedom like a free individual."
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The 30.9 million visitors who flocked to Florida during the last three months of 2021 gave the state its second consecutive quarter with higher visitation numbers than in 2019, a year DeSantis cited often as the pre-pandemic matrix by which tourism statistics were measured.
Domestic visitation was up 7% over the fourth quarter of 2019 and international travel jumped by 43% over the third quarter of 2021, DeSantis said. Statewide hotel revenues were at $17.3 billion, the highest total ever.
The governor said he came to Okaloosa County to announce his good economic news because Northwest Florida and the Destin-Fort Walton Beach region had "outperformed other parts of the state" on the tourism revenue front.
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Jennifer Adams, the county's Tourism Development Department director, was called upon to announce that tourist development tax revenue in Destin-Fort Walton Beach had increased by 74% over the pandemic-marred year of 2020, and 41% over 2019.
"This past year visitors spent $736 million in our community. That's 30%, or $184 million, more dollars going directly into our local economy," Adams told those assembled. "Our goal was a 10% increase."
The Gulfarium was chosen for DeSantis' announcement not only because ground was recently broken at the 67-year-old facility to build a multimillion dollar dolphin habitat, but also because the marine park had bounced back in a big way from hard times brought on by the pandemic.
Pensacola entrepreneur Collier Merrill, whose brother Will is president of the Gulfarium, spoke of the hardship the employees endured when COVID-19 forced businesses everywhere to shut down. With hundreds of animals that needed feeding and care whether or not people were coming through the turnstiles, Merrill said that if DeSantis had waited to open Florida as long as California waited to open its state, "we wouldn't be here."
"The last fiscal year was the best we had in 65 years," he said. "While California was still closed through April of 2021, we had 350,000 people come through our doors. It was the best year ever."
DeSantis took the opportunity to lash out at the governors of some states and the mayors of a few big cities for continuing to require masks or other COVID-19 related precautions.
He said the names of many of the same governors and mayors mandating masks and restricting personal freedoms can be found among those booking vacations in Florida.
The governor also called for an end to "ridiculous" mask mandates on airplanes and for businesses to stop forcing employees to wear masks while serving unmasked customers.
He also blamed rampant inflation on President Joe Biden and federal policies that have restricted travel and individual freedom.
Dana Young, the president and CEO of Visit Florida, credited the leadership of DeSantis and the freedom he has given to Visit Florida to market the state for the success the tourism industry is seeing.
"We are killing it here in Florida. Our tourism industry is thriving," Young said. "The operative word is freedom. People want freedom and they find it in Florida."
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Gov. Ron DeSantis announces record tourism amid Okaloosa visit