SEBRING - It was impossible to know in April 2008, but as John Scherlacher became Highlands County tourism director, the rest of the nation was headed into the deepest recession since the Great Depression.
"When I first started here, it was so quiet it was almost scary," Scherlacher said Tuesday.
Five years later, the economy has turned around. Visit Florida announced two weeks ago that 23.4 million tourists visited the Sunshine State in the second quarter.
"This makes Q2 2013 the second largest quarter for visitation in the state's history," the state tourism office said.
Scherlacher is also seeing an upward trend in Highlands County.
Through the two-cent tourist development tax collected by hotels and other temporary lodgings, Scherlacher determined that Highlands County is seeing 5.5 percent more visitors than in 2012. "Which is very good."
The Caladium Festival may have also seen a record year, Chamber of Commerce President Eileen M. May said.
Tickets aren't sold so there's no objective count, but two extra bus tours were added to the caladium fields, she said. "And you were not able to get down the street.
"A lot of the vendors said they had better sales than they've ever had, and the growers sold out every bulb they had. That's the first time that ever happened," May said.
Moving the event a month earlier helped, and good weather was also a factor, she said, but Scherlacher pointed to a slowly improving economy.
Visit Florida estimated 77.6 million domestic visitors in the past year, 10.2 million overseas travelers and 3.6 million Canadians. Canadian visits increased 3.9 percent; overseas travel is up 11.3 percent.
Primary data collected at Florida's 14 major airports in the first quarter of 2013 reflect a 1.2 percent increase in total enplanements from the same period in 2012.
Tourism and recreation taxable sales for Florida increased year-over-year in January and February 2013, a 5.1 percent increase over the same period in 2012. The Average Daily Room Rate rose 6.8 percent to $136.45 and the occupancy rate for Florida hotels increased 2.3 percentage points to 74.1 percent in Q1 2013 compared to Q1 2012.
"Every 85 visitors we welcome support one Florida job," said Glenn Hastings, Visit Florida board chair. "Florida's hospitality industry mark(ed) the 36th straight month of job growth for the tourism sector."
Although gasoline prices are high, the number of Florida Welcome Center visits are up 2.2 percent, said Scherlacher, who spent last week at the Interstate 75 entrance of Florida-Georgia border.
In the past year, Highlands County received national and regional publicity on three fronts: Readers Digest named Lake Placid as the most interesting town in America; Major League Fishing held a tournament on Lake Istokpoga that is still being rerun on the Outdoor Channel; and Fox News 13 broadcast its morning show from Sebring.
"That was big exposure for us," Scherlacher said, which correspondingly generated web hits.
The tourism bureau has advertised golf in two in-state television markets: Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Myers-Sarasota-Bradenton. The response showed that the Southwest golfers - who have a lower per-capita income than Southeast Florida - saw Highlands as a good value.
The Internet, Facebook ads and You Tube are also proving that prospective tourists are paying attention to Highlands County.
However, Scherlacher cautioned, tourism is a planned event. A Highlands County lakes brochure picked up at the Florida border today, or viewing a Major League Fishing show may produce a tourist next year.
"It could be two years from now. It's really, really difficult to measure," Scherlacher said.