Amid signs that Pinellas tourism is pulling out of a two-year slump, one important part of the business remains in decline.
The British aren't coming. Or at least not in the numbers they did before.
An estimated 50,000 fewer Europeans stayed overnight in Pinellas for the first 10 months of 2010, a drop of 6.4 percent from a year earlier, according to Research Data Services in Tampa. Tourists from the United Kingdom traditionally make up about 70 percent of European visitors to Pinellas, with Germans accounting for most of the rest.
"Europe will come back (next year)," said Walter Klages, president of Research Data, which conducts visitor surveys for the county's tourism agency. "The British market, no. The German market very definitely will."
The decline hurts because Europeans stay longer and spend more than domestic tourists, said Russ Kimball, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort.
Tourism businesses in Tampa Bay and Florida faced a series of obstacles to attracting foreign visitors in 2010: a frigid March, volcanic ash that grounded flights over Europe and the BP oil spill.
More British travelers are staying home or taking cheaper vacations because of their nation's sour economy, said Venessa Alexander, director of Pinellas County's U.K. travel office.
To reduce its massive debt, the U.K. government is raising taxes, cutting social programs and slashing a half-million public sector jobs. The national sales tax will rise to 20 percent. A tax on air travel is being doubled, Alexander said. That will cost a family of four $316 in taxes to fly to the United States and back.
It's not just Pinellas. Visitor counts are down across Florida, including a 9.5 percent drop in Orlando this year, she said. Researchers in Hillsborough County say they're encountering fewer British travelers but haven't finished reports, said Steve Hayes, executive vice president of the county's tourism agency, Tampa Bay & Co.
Klages predicted hotels and other tourism businesses will see an upturn in 2011. Lodging occupancy in Pinellas was up 2.9 percent and room rates rose 4.9 percent from a year earlier. Revenues from the county's tax on hotel rooms and other lodging in October rose 5 percent from October 2009.
Forty-nine percent of hotel managers reported bookings for the next three months were down, compared with 64 percent of managers last year.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8128.