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A couple holding hands walk through sea water with a Florida skyline in the background.
Florida’s Clearwater Beach. Viaval Tours/Shutterstock

Florida ‘freakishness’: why the sunshine state might have lost its appeal

Florida is known worldwide for its beaches, resorts and theme parks, but has recently made headlines for a different reason. The state has been rocked by political controversies, bitter debates and fatal shootings at odds with its previously laid back holiday destination image.

In his 1947 book, Inside USA, writer John Gunther described Florida’s “freakishness in everything from architecture to social behaviour unmatched in any American state”. If Gunther had been writing today, he might be just as judgemental.

Florida’s recent political turmoil can be attributed to some highly contentious policies. The state has witnessed heated debates and legislative battles on issues including abortion, gun control, education, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights.

Florida has been derided as “the worst state” in which to live, one of the worst in which to be unemployed or a student, and not a good place to die.

Even Donald Trump, who moved to his Florida Mar-a-Lago home during his presidency, has called it “among the worst states” to live in or retire to. This was an attack on Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination.

What was once considered by many to be a purple state – one that could either be Republican or Democrat – is now fiercely Republican. In recent years, the divide between those of different political beliefs has become toxic.

Importance of international image

International tourism and trade is huge business for Florida. In 2022, more than 1.1 million people visited Florida from the UK, the second largest group of international visitors on an annual basis. The UK is also Florida’s eighth largest trade partner with bilateral trade reaching $5.8 billion (£4.6 billion) in 2022. So state leaders might worry about tarnishing its image abroad.

Business leaders are already fretting about a fall in international visitor numbers linked to COVID and negative media coverage of the state. Around US$50 million was invested in marketing the state to tourists in 2023, this is expected to rise dramatically in 2024. The state’s ability to attract workers to keep its tourism and other industries going is weakening, reports suggest.

Heather DiGiacomo, chief of staff at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, told Florida senators that applications for jobs at state-run agencies were down and staff retention was down too. “These turnover rates … impacts the number of well-trained staff available to mentor new staff and puts additional strain on current staff without longer shifts in detention.”

A student sits in front of large portraits of students who were killed in a shooting.
Audriana Lima, 14, a current freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, visits a display of portraits of the 17 students and staff who were killed in a school shooting five years earlier. AP/Alamy

Republican governor Ron DeSantis, now a presidential candidate, has been at the centre of Florida’s significant political divisions. The Republican state legislature’s controversial partisan bills, such as the recent redrawing of the electoral map to benefit the Republican party, was signed into law despite intense opposition.

While his conservative policies on taxes, regulation and immigration have won strong support from conservatives, critics argue that he prioritises partisan politics over the needs of all Floridians. His outspoken handling of the COVID pandemic sparked controversy, with accusations of downplaying the severity of the virus and prioritising economic interests.

Florida’s restrictive abortion laws have also attracted national and international attention. In April 2023, the state passed the foetal heartbeat bill, which prohibits abortions once a foetal heartbeat is detected, typically at around six weeks gestation. This law has faced significant backlash from reproductive rights advocates, who argue that many individuals may not even be aware of their pregnancy at such an early stage.

School shootings and gun laws

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was passed into Florida state law after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, in which 17 people were killed. It raised the age for a firearm purchase from 18 to 21 and allowed schools to employ armed “guardians”. Critics argued that it fell short of addressing the root causes of gun violence in Florida.

There were seven mass shootings in Florida in the first two months of 2023. Despite this, the state has just passed a law that will come into effect on July 1 that will allow anyone who can legally own a gun in Florida to carry one without the need for a permit.

Florida’s partisan divide has been exacerbated by the introduction and passage of several laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. These laws cover areas including adoption, education, and transgender rights.

This year a massive LGBTQ event in a Florida theme park, which typically attracts 150,000 people, is taking out extra security measures, after new “don’t say gay” state laws were introduced in 2022. These rules ban teachers from discussing topics including sexual orientation. More generally, travel advisory warnings have been issued on the risks of travel to the state for LGBTQ+, African American and Latino people. A recent federal ruling overturned municipal bans on conversion therapy.

Although the “don’t say gay” bill was originally only aimed at third grade students and under, the bill has since been extended by Florida’s Board of Education to apply to all school pupils.

DeSantis has also become embroiled in a long legal and political battle with the Walt Disney Company, a major state employer, over the “don’t say gay” legislation. Disney recently announced it was cancelling a US$1 billion office complex project in the state.

Bills that restrict transgender students’ participation in school sports teams consistent with their gender identity have also sparked heated debate.

Meanwhile, changes in voting laws brought in by the state, including stricter identification requirements and limitations on the drop boxes where voters can leave mail-in ballots, have been criticised for making it more difficult for some people to vote.

Florida’s recent political turmoil has thrust the state into the national, and global, spotlight. Its deeply partisan divide, controversial policies and gun laws have created a toxic political climate, which has the ability to significantly damage the sunshine state’s appeal.

This article previously stated that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act did not introduce restrictions on the purchase of firearms or background checks. It has been amended to clarify that the act raised the age restriction of purchases to 21.

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