In a gesture of regional self-interest, Pinellas tourism officials indicated they are open to kicking in tax money to help attract new flights to Tampa International Airport.
Tampa International chief executive Joe Lopano presented the county's Tourist Development Council with his strategy to tackle TIA's biggest problem: the anemic schedule of nonstop flights to international overseas destinations.
The centerpiece will be the airport's first incentive program for airlines that launch new routes, he said. Specifics are still being hammered out. But the airport won't charge landing fees or certain terminal rents for up to two years, Lopano said.
Airports and community groups routinely put up money to advertise new destinations. That's where the Tourist Development Council comes in.
The panel of local elected officials and tourism businesses executives controls the 5 percent tax on temporary lodging such as hotel and motel rooms. It generates about $25 million annually that must be spent for promoting tourism in Pinellas.
The council put $250,000 for promoting new airline service in its budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
Lopano didn't just come out and ask for money. He talked about the airport and county working as partners in marketing a region that's often overlooked for its size and economic clout.
Each week, Tampa averages just 24 nonstop flights outside the United States, composed mostly of flights to Canada and British Airways' daily flight to London. That puts TIA far behind Miami International (1,300 nonstop international flights), Fort Lauderdale (359) and Orlando International and nearby Orlando Sanford International combined (199).
The meager selection forces many Tampa Bay residents to travel to Miami or Orlando for direct international flights. Tampa International needs to convince airlines those travelers and others from as far south as Fort Myers could help fill a new overseas flight from Tampa, Lopano said.
Officials have targeted five potential international destinations: Frankfurt, Germany; Panama City, Panama; Mexico City; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Bogota, Colombia.
"We will be the international gateway for the west coast of Florida," Lopano said. "We will win as a team."
"I love your attitude," said County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala.
Minich made it clear the marketing money isn't just for Tampa International Airport. He said he wants to strike a deal with Air France to make Pinellas County the official beach destination of its new flights to Orlando International Airport.
But Lopano said it's in the best interest of the Pinellas tourism industry to bring more international visitors to Tampa International Airport.
"Real people in the region will benefit," he said. "Hoteliers, taxi cab drivers will benefit when the region is successful."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.