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Tourism continues to surge in Florida, despite threats like Zika, Pulse shooting and hurricanes

By Justine Griffin
Florida continues to attract tourists in record numbers. Clearwater Beach is a popular spot and bed tax figures in Pinellas County continue to break records, too. JIM DAMASKE | Times

Tourists have continued to flock to Florida in record numbers this year despite a slew of obstacles that could have deterred people from vacationing here, including the Zika virus, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and two hurricanes.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that 85 million visitors came to Florida during the first nine months of the year — the largest number of tourists during any nine months in the state's history. That's a 5.5 percent increase over last year.

For the third quarter, which is July through September, 26.9 million visitors came to the state, which is a 5.1 percent bump compared to last year.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, which have regularly outpaced the state in tourism growth, also have reported record-shattering bed tax collections. With more than 2,000 new hotel rooms set to open over the next few years in the Tampa Bay area, local tourism officials don't see a slowdown any time soon.

"What we did have going on this year was the coverage of the presidential election sucking all the air out of any other stories that may have further impacted tourism," said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas County's tourism marketing agency. "We look for a silver lining wherever we can find them."

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In March, Pinellas County collected $7 million in bed taxes for the first time and is on pace to collect $50 million by the end of the year. That would be up from $40 million collected last year, Downing said. In addition, the average daily room rate has risen by 33 percent over the last five years.

"Our objective isn't to bring more and more visitors," Downing said. "It's to continue to explore ways to get more economic impact from the tourists we do get."

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Hillsborough County collected $26.9 million in tourism development taxes this fiscal year. That beats the amount recorded in 2015 by more than 10 percent; it's the third record-breaking year in a row.

"Florida is still viewed as a dream vacation, especially internationally," said Patrick Harrison, chief marketing officer for Visit Tampa Bay. "The whole state is doing well, and we continue to outpace the rest of the country."

Scott's office said all the visitors are resulting in jobs. Tourism-related jobs set a record during the third quarter this year, when the industry employed 1.24 million people, up 4 percent.

"We are on pace to reach our goal of 115 million tourists by the end of the year," Scott said in a statement.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.