TAMPA — Busch Gardens was Gov. Rick Scott's latest stop on the campaign trail Thursday as he touted record numbers for Florida and Tampa Bay tourism.
Scott, flanked by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and other local officials, touted a record-breaking first quarter for Florida tourism this year.
Hillsborough and Pinellas officials announced record bed tax collections for April and March respectively.
In the first three months of 2014, the governor said Florida had a record 26.7 million visitors, an increase of 2 percent compared with the first quarter of 2013. It was the best quarter in terms of visitors in state history, beating the previous record of 26.2 million who visited Florida in the first quarter of 2013.
"We are off to a great start to reaching our goal of 100 million visitors to Florida this year," Scott said.
The governor wants to surpass the state record set last year, when 95 million people visited Florida.
Scott touted the Florida Legislature's recent decision to approve a $74 million budget for the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida, for the next fiscal year. Together with private money, Visit Florida expects to spend $212 million to market the state around the world.
The other first quarter tourism record the governor bragged about on Thursday was the number of travel-related jobs in the state. There were 1,125,300 people working in Florida's tourism industries, a rise of 3.5 percent from the same time period of January to March 2013.
"We want more jobs in our state," Scott said. "Tourism is a big driver."
The tourism agencies for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties also had good news to share on Thursday regarding tourist development tax collections. The 5 percent bed tax is added to all hotel and seasonal bookings, making it one of the best measures of the local tourism trade.
Hillsborough County set a record for April tourist tax collections, taking in a little more than $3 million. That's a jump of more than 10 percent from the previous record of $2.7 million set in April 2007. Santiago Corrada, the CEO of Hillsborough tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay, said that March 2014 is the best month of bed tax collections ever.
Hillsborough's bed tax figures in the first seven months of fiscal year 2014 are also running 6 percent ahead of last year and now stand at $13.9 million.
"Tourism is the strongest that it's ever been in our community," said Corrada, who also touted the record visitor spending of $4.4 billion in Hillsborough County in 2013.
Pinellas County's tax reports run a month behind Hillsborough, but that side of the bay also reported another record: Pinellas collected a record $5.3 million in bed taxes in March. That's the best month of tourist tax receipts in county history, beating the old record of $4.9 million in March 2013 by 7 percent.
Pinellas also reported collecting $17.3 million in tourist taxes in the first six months of this fiscal year, beating the taxes collected in the same time period last year by 10 percent.
The governor talked about how tourism helps his goal of creating jobs in Florida. He also talked about taking his daughters around the country to visit all kinds of attractions while they were growing up.
"I love tourism," Scott said. "I'm one of the best tourists around."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.