By Bob Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Egypt and Florida share one rare feature: a major river flowing northward – Egypt’s Nile, Florida’s St. Johns. Otherwise, they have little in common. Egypt is ancient; Florida is recent. Egypt has pyramids; Florida has pyramid schemes. Egypt is arid; Florida is so humid that even the mildew gets moldy.Yet Egypt and Florida do share one worrisome problem: overdependence on tourism. The risk of this was evident during Egypt’s recent unrest. In Giza, where visitors go to see the pyramids, guides say tourism thereabouts is so slow that they can’t afford feed for their camels. That tourists fled Egypt with an urgency not seen since Moses exited through the parted Red Sea isn’t surprising. If thugs will menace CNN’s Anderson Cooper, nobody is safe.The bad news for Egypt is that a long time may pass before foreign tourists return in droves … or in cruise ships or jitneys – even if protesters leave Cairo’s Liberation Square. For Floridians, the big question after each newsworthy event of this type anywhere in the world is this: Could it happen here?Fair question. After all, Egypt’s turmoil was attributed to youths using “social networking.” In Florida, if you can find anyone younger than 21 who’s not constantly busy with Facebook, Twitter, surfing the web, or texting while driving, call a counselor because that’s behavior far outside the new normal.Yet Florida youngsters’ avid social networking doesn’t really matter. As JMI’s Civics Initiative discovered, our youngsters are pretty well oblivious to everything related to government, politics, history, or economics. So potential tourists are unlikely to be spooked by youthful protests near Florida’s Capitol. Indeed, the only protesters to mass there recently were well-behaved Tea Partiers.Having ruled out a youth-led revolt overthrowing Florida’s government and frightening tourists, we’re left with a follow-up question: Could anything else cause tourism to dry up to a point that Disney World could no longer pay recent college grads to stroll around the Magic Kingdom in a mouse costume?Maybe. Florida – the only state where an NBA game was postponed because of a riot — could still experience urban riots. And bad publicity from the riots near the Miami Heat’s old arena was soon exacerbated by slayings of tourists who engaged in high-risk behavior: driving a rental car around Miami.Granted, instead of miscreant humans, sometimes it’s Mother Nature who disrupts Florida’s tourism by sending storms ashore — usually wherever the Weather Channel sets up shop. Fortunately, such disruptions are temporary – when there’s enough property insurance to fund a recovery.As for manmade disasters, another oil spill could occur — although during 2010’s BP spill, most damage to tourism was not caused by oil on our shores but by hyperventilating TV reporters on our shores.Meanwhile, when it comes to scaring tourists, the only thing worse than an over-hyped oil spill would be chronic disruptions in the fuel supply – not a total improbability, given that Mideast turmoil is spreading. So here’s a key question regarding tourism: If you lived in, say, Ohio, would you load your family into a car and head for Florida if gasoline prices topped $6 per gallon and you’d seen reports of stranded vehicles and long lines at gas stations that had no gas? Probably not.Potential threats to tourism must be taken seriously precisely because tourism is so beneficial for Florida. Those 81 million-plus visitors who come each year pay taxes but use few of our costlier government services. Yet Florida’s economy arguably remains too dependent on its historic “three-legged stool” of tourism, agriculture, and construction. Therefore, we need to diversify so we can survive and prosper — even if the Magic Kingdom’s cartoon characters temporarily suffer the same dry spell as the guides who tend the hungry camels of Giza.