Just how bad was 2009 for Pinellas tourism businesses?
About 202,000 fewer visitors spent at least one night in the county than in 2008, a decline of nearly 4 percent. Tourist spending was down $158.3 million, or 4.7 percent, from a year earlier. The official annual visitor total — 4,991,420 — didn't break the 5 million mark for the first time since 2003.
"We knew it was coming, a major contraction," said Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services, which tracks tourism statistics for the county. "What happened after 9/11 doesn't compare to the impact we've had."
Travel from the Midwest, the area's biggest feeder market, showed the sharpest decline — off by nearly 128,000 visitors, or 8 percent, from 2008. The bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, along with layoffs at their suppliers, kept many would-be vacationers home.
Visits from the Midwest strengthened by the end of 2009. But that's when European travel began to fall off. For 2009, European visitors declined by 53,000, or 5.3 percent, from a year earlier. Klages blamed the declining value of the euro against the dollar and concerns over government debt in Greece, Portugal and Spain.
There was one bright spot: More Floridians vacationed close to home. Nearly 600,000 Sunshine State residents visited Pinellas overnight, an 8 percent increase over 2008. Tampa and Orlando tourists made up the biggest numbers.
As ugly as 2009 turned out, Pinellas hotels fared better than peers across the state. Average daily room rates in Clearwater and St. Petersburg fell 6 percent, and occupancy dropped 5.4 percent, less than the state average and seven Florida markets surveyed by Smith Travel Research.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.