2012 was Pinellas County's best year ever for tourism. But it didn't get to hold the record for long.
That's because 2013 results are in, and now it stands as the best year ever in the annals of Pinellas tourism.
The county saw a record 5,579,900 overnight visitors from January to December 2013. That's 144,900 more visitors than the old 2012 record, a bump of 2.6 percent.
But 2013 is already in the rearview mirror for D.T. Minich, the executive director of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
"2013 was a banner year," he said. "Now we're building on that."
The same trend lines that saw a record number of visitors come to Pinellas in 2013, he said, are running even stronger in 2014.
The most encouraging metric in the Annual 2013 Visitor Profile report released this week was the number of Latin American visitors who came to Pinellas. There were 96,000 such visitors in 2013, an increase of 22,000 people.
Tampa Bay has long struggled to compete with Orlando and Miami for Latin Americans. But the 30 percent leap in that segment was the biggest increase in any Pinellas feeder market.
That's especially encouraging because in mid December, Copa Airlines started flying four days a week between Tampa International Airport and Panama City, Panama. It is the bay area's first direct flight to Latin America.
So if Pinellas could attract 96,000 Latin American visitors without direct flights for most of the year, Minich said, imagine how many might visit in 2014 after a full year of flights.
"That number's going to be way higher this year," Minich said. "Those flights are doing really well, and we're getting huge interest."
He credited 2013's strong Latin American numbers with the marketing effort Pinellas launched mid-year to push the new Copa route in Central and South America.
Even more encouraging, Minich said, is that Pinellas hotels are signing package deals with Latin American tour operators. Last month his agency hosted about 50 such operators during the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas has spent decades building its European market. In 2013, the number of visitors from Europe breached the 1 million mark for the first time. There were 1,015,052 European visitors in 2013, an increase of 16,281.
Minich said that Pinellas' efforts to grab Latin American market share will pay off much quicker than its effort to attract European tourists did.
"Now that we've got the flights, that market is going to grow so much faster than how long it took us to grow the European market," Minich said.
The increase in international visitors is especially important because they do more than just book hotel rooms and eat at restaurants: They shop.
"One international visitor's spending really equates to three domestic visitors," Minich said. "That's because of the length of stay and the money they're spending.
"They're not just here to buy souvenirs. They're doing major shopping while they're here."
There was also a steady rise in the number of Pinellas visitors from feeder markets in the Northeast and Midwest in 2013.
There were 1,274,895 visitors from the Northeast last year, a rise of 23,375. The Midwest sent 1,608,969 to Pinellas, an increase of 21,182.
But Minich predicts those markets will do even better in 2014. Earlier this year, Pinellas ran its annual marketing campaign to lure visitors to its warm beaches just as the country was blanketed by a long, harsh winter. Hoteliers reported a jump in winter and spring bookings.
The total economic impact of Pinellas tourism also increased by $475 million, generating a record $8.3 billion impact in 2013. Last year was the fifth straight year of visitor growth since the recession reduced the number of visitors to just below 5 million in 2009.
Pinellas also collected $31.8 million in tourist development taxes in calendar year 2013. Also known as the bed tax, it's a 5 percent surcharge added to the bill of every hotel room and accommodation rented out for less than six months.
That's especially important because any Florida county that collects more than $30 million in tourist taxes can be designated as a "high tourism impact" county.
That would allow the Pinellas County Commission — were it to so choose — to raise the tourist tax to 6 percent to fund even more tourism and economic development projects.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.
Overnight visitors in 2013
Increase in visitors over 2012 record
Increase in Latin American visitors