By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - A record 24 million tourists visited Florida this spring, up 3 percent from 2013, spurred by unusually cold northern weather, a Google program that allows virtual beach tours and aggressive marketing, a state official said on Tuesday.
Preliminary numbers also show tourism spending totaled $35.7 billion from January through May, up 7.4 percent from the same period last year, said Will Seccombe, president and chief executive of Visit Florida, the state's travel promotion agency.
The spikes accompanied the state's first cold-weather marketing campaign during an usually harsh northern winter.
“It happened to coincide with the polar vortex, which none of us were really planning on or banking on,” Seccombe said.
At a meeting on Tuesday, he showed Florida Governor Rick Scott and the state Cabinet television spots that were aimed at northerners and Canadians with the slogan “Must be the sunshine.” One featured tourists flying in “V” formation like geese to beaches, golf courses and theme parks.
With children going back to school, Seccombe said the year-round ad campaign will now begin targeting retirees and young couples whose vacation plans are not tied to school calendars.
Visit Florida estimated that 2.8 million overseas visitors came to the state in the April-June quarter, including 1 million Canadians.
Scott, whose re-election campaign is focused heavily on job creation, said his administration invested $74 million in Visit Florida with a goal of drawing 100 million tourists this year.
With 26 million visitors in the first quarter and 24 million in the second, he said Florida was on pace to meet that target. Both quarters set records for the state.
Employment in the state's hospitality industry stands around 1 million — with roughly one job produced by every 85 tourists, Seccombe said.
Seccombe said millions of people have virtually toured Florida's beaches through a partnership with Google that created online ground-level views. Four men walked 740 miles of beaches to upload video to Google Maps and Visitflorida.com for the initiative.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Eric Walsh)