Cerabino: Marketing Florida tourism to Syrians draws a red line

It’s a shame we’re not marketing our state to Syrian tourists anymore.

Visit Florida, the state’s tourism outfit, signed a contract in March that paid a German company to market Florida as a tourist destination to people in Syria and nine other Middle East countries.

But that contract was quickly altered to remove Syria when The Naples Daily News discovered it last week.

Too bad. I was looking forward to an edgy ad buy in Aleppo that might show how “getting bombed” in Florida has a completely different meaning. Or maybe a catchy Florida pitch with the tag line: “Come to escape the genocide, stay for the Waffle House.”

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But Visit Florida has been a target for lawmakers, who think it wastes too much public money on promoting Florida. The Syria marketing campaign could be even harder to defend than the taxpayer funding of Pitbull’s next hoochie-mama music video, or continuing to give the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars $1.25 million a year to advertise Florida on the jerseys of his English soccer team.

Gov. Rick Scott has become a bit tetchy these days over tourism issues. You see, he wanted the state legislature to cough up $100 million for Visit Florida, a 31.5 percent increase over last’s year’s budget. But instead, lawmakers slashed Visit Florida’s take to $25 million.

I know what you’re thinking. This is a crisis. After all, how will people know that Florida is a warm place to go in the winter if we don’t pay $11.6 million to fund celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show?

And so now Scott is threatening a veto and talking about how essential it is to spend tax dollars to lure tourists here.

While this is going on, it’s less than helpful to explain a Syrian tourism push — especially since Scott is in favor of a Syrian travel ban.

The governor even wrote a letter to Congress a little over a year ago, telling federal lawmakers that Florida didn’t want any Syrian refugees to come here.

“I can ask Congress, which is what I’ve done, to say don’t fund one dollar of federal money to relocate one Syrian refugee to our state until we slow down and get the facts and we understand what’s going on,” Scott said at the time while speaking on Fox News.

The idea that we just willy-nilly take Syrian refugees without any vetting ignores a vigorous, multi-agency two-year screening process that culminates in relocated refugees being assigned to a country, rather than picking one.

Visit Florida explained that the inclusion of Syria in the ongoing marking campaign was a “clerical error.”

But if safety is the reason why Syrian was removed from the list last week, then why is Florida still going on with its tourism push in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the home of 17 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 plot?

And despite the fear-mongering, nearly 100 Syrian families already have been relocated to Florida without incident since that country’s civil war.

So this is really just a problem of branding. These Syrians in Florida need to start thinking of themselves more as tourists than refugees.

After all, there’s frequently a fine line between being a Florida tourist and a refugee.

Whether you’re coming to Florida to flee a brutal winter or a brutal dictator, it’s all just basically landing in Florida to get away from something else. The essential distinction is that tourists are merely refugees with money.

And this can be fixed.

Instead of handing tax dollars to Visit Florida to be spent in Germany, we can eliminate the middle man by handing the money directly to the Florida-relocated refugees, who then, by virtue of having money to spend, attain the desired status of Florida tourists.

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