Visit Florida hired German firm to market state to Syrians

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency under fire from lawmakers, hired a German company in March to market the state to travelers from Syria, one of the countries identified as a state sponsor of terrorism and included in President Trump's temporary travel ban.

A contract between the tourism promotion agency and Munich-based AviaReps was signed March 19 to market the state in 10 Middle Eastern countries, including Syria.

Visit Florida canceled the contract Wednesday after the Naples Daily News began asking questions about it. That same day, the agency signed a new contract with AviaReps that excluded marketing the state as a travel destination in Syria, listed by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The new contract limits marketing to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. AviaReps receives $3,500 a month under the contract from March through June, plus approved expenses.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has lobbied for Visit Florida to receive more state money, has backed Trump's tough stance on foreign travel into the U.S., particularly from countries with links to terrorism like Syria. Trump issued a temporary ban in January but withdrew it after a federal appeals court issued a stay to review it.

Trump issued a new temporary travel ban in March. Trump's order, although suspended while under judicial review, covers all visitors from Syria, including vacationers, a State Department official said.

Visit Florida spokesman John Tupps said the initial contract that existed for nearly two months was an error.

"Visit Florida was recently alerted to a clerical error in a short-term contract with the international advertising agency AviaReps," Tupps said in a statement. "In two places, the contract inaccurately listed several Middle East countries as areas of marketing focus.

"We immediately updated the contract to reflect the correct countries," Tupps said.

The Florida Legislature has reduced funding to Visit Florida because of concerns about the agency's use of taxpayer money. Despite warnings from Scott, lawmakers agreed Monday to cut Visit Florida's budget from $76 million to $25 million. They also approved language in the budget that would bring tougher restrictions on how the agency signs its contracts.

Scott has toured the state criticizing criticized the legislative action, claiming it will lead to fewer tourists and less revenue. Last year, the state saw a record 112.8 million tourists, which Scott said was due to Visit Florida.

But reports prepared by state economists revealed Visit Florida will generate only 9% of the $2.9 billion in tax revenue the state will collect from tourists this year.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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