Amid record tourism, Clearwater Beach hotel boom sparks a rethink in older beach towns

Aerial views of the many construction sites around Clearwater Beach. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Aerial views of the many construction sites around Clearwater Beach. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published February 19 2016
Updated February 19 2016

CLEARWATER BEACH — Never before in modern Tampa Bay history has so much new commercial construction packed into so little beachfront space generated as much economic revival — or as much backlash — as the hotel mega-boom now under way in this gulf-side community.

The opulent 15-story Opal Sands Resort opens this week. Coming soon: five other hotels, including the luxury Wyndham Grande Hotel, the largest structure ever to be built on Clearwater Beach. A proposed J.W. Marriott condo-hotel is in the works. And all will join such recent landmark hotels here as the Sandpearl Resort and Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort, to name a few.

The impact of this startling investment surge in hotels is reverberating in a mix of mild shock and envy along many Pinellas beachfront towns. Some towns anxious to preserve the past want nothing to do with it. They are wary of the excessive development and unhappy with the perceived upticks in traffic. But other towns fret that all those big and shiny new hotels with names like Wyndham, Hyatt and Marriott will only make their own tourist offerings appear more outdated and lacking the kind of big brand splash to keep people coming back when Florida's record tourism binge runs its course.

"Many on the beaches have observed what is going on in Clearwater Beach as a reason to proceed with caution," says Robin Sollie, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "I have not heard of anyone who wants to build in as big or grandiose a way.

"But would they like to get some new flagship hotels? Sure," she says. "It would boost occupancy, and everything around it would need to be upgraded."


In Clearwater Beach, the timing for a hotel renaissance seems perfect.

For starters, Florida's governor announced on Thursday that 2015 was yet another record year for tourism in the state with 105 million visitors. That's up from nearly 99 million in 2014 and almost 95 million in 2013.

All these thousands of new beach front rooms in higher-rate Clearwater Beach hotels will be happy to accommodate the surge in visitors.

In addition, Clearwater Beach this past week was named the No. 1 beach in the United States. That ranking enjoys strong credibility because it was based on the quantity and quality of traveler reviews and ratings for an entire year on the TripAdvisor web site. (St. Pete Beach ranked No. 4 this year.)

So let's put all of this together. Following yet another record tourism year, the now top rated beach in the United States is awash in new, brand name hotels ready to lure the next generation of visitors happy to pay upscale rates.

"New development in Clearwater Beach definitely gives them a competitive advantage," says Pinellas tourism chief David Downing of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. He suggests new beach properties there will help boost the yield per tourist thanks to higher rates that can be charged, a formula that will help make Pinellas less dependent on the race to always beat last year's tourist volumes.

"It's great the state grossed 105 million visitors in 2015, but that is a game without end," Downing says. "If the goal is simply get more people, that is a dangerous cycle. What we are trying to do is work on 'yield' — to get a greater economic impact — from fewer visitors and have less stress on out infrastructure."

Still, the Clearwater Beach boom is being closely watched. "I know it is something other towns like St. Pete Beach are paying attention to," Downing says, adding that each beach front town has its own culture and attitudes about redevelopment.

One likely byproduct of all this: A sharp increase in bed taxes, the tourism revenue that Pinellas County covets. It serves as the source of income that helps pay for future tourism marketing, county-level debts and, perhaps, a broader array of expenses and projects ahead. Maybe even a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

What's not to like?

The most obvious answer, one well documented in the media, is the horrendous traffic and parking woes for folks trying to get into and out of Clearwater Beach. The traffic back-ups, a bane to beach residents, are so frequent and so bad that the city of Clearwater has introduced shuttle services (park in Clearwater, shuttle to the beach), a water ferry service and is even exploring a gondola system — all driven by the need to subtract vehicles from the gridlock that can dominate Clearwater Beach's main roads.

Tourism and hotel leaders point out that the bulk of heavy beach traffic comes less from hotel guests, who tend to stick where they are staying and also have hotel parking spots, but from area day trippers. They flood beach front towns on weekends and for special events and, inevitably, struggle to find parking.

In Belleair Beach, the next beach front community south of Clearwater Beach, road congestion dominated a city council meeting earlier this year. One city attorney proposed putting a one-way toll booth on the Belleair Beach side of the Causeway Bridge that connects Clearwater Beach.

Economic growth? More jobs? Competitive tourist destinations? Residential backlash? Transportation remedies?

So far, comprehensive solutions — or perhaps compromises — are still up for debate.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @ venturetampabay.