MIAMI (AP) — When Juan Ponce de Leon searched for riches in Florida, he unknowingly helped turn the Sunshine State into the first travel destination in the United States.
In April 1513, the Spanish monarchy contracted the explorer to find another island off of Cuba that was rumored to have great riches. Instead he landed in Florida and named it "La Florida," after the "feast of the flowers" during Spain's Easter celebrations.
Five centuries later, the state is celebrating its Spanish heritage with a series of events throughout 2013.
"It was always seen as an exotic place," historian Dr. J Michael Francis said of Florida. "That's something that Florida tourism continues to market on some level."
Although Florida's history dates back more than 12,000 years with Native Americans, the statewide campaign "Viva Florida 500" will highlight the start of a new era with de Leon's adventurous voyage to the New World.
"He was the first visitor to the United States," said Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation. "That's 500 years of explorers and they kept coming back."
Tourism is Florida's No. 1 industry, responsible for welcoming 87.3 million visitors in 2011, according to state official estimates.
Many visitors may know Florida mostly for its 825 miles (about 1,330 kilometers) of beaches or as the theme park capital of the world, but the "Viva Florida" campaign is designed to broaden their outlook, Seccombe said. The state will host 150 celebrations that "highlight cultural diversity and the art culture history that makes up the fabric of our communities."
After de Leon's visit, European settlers colonized in present-day St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city. Visitors to the city can find many references to the Spanish colonial era, from the massive Castillo de San Marcos fort that protected the city from attack, to the colorful Spanish architecture and narrow streets. (Full-scale replicas of Ponce de Leon's flagship will visit the city in April).