The forecast for the Pinellas beaches this summer:
Pinellas County is in the midst of a third consecutive year of record tourism numbers, and there's no sign that might let up this summer. The county's tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, reports a massive amount of digital interest in the Pinellas beaches as a summer destination.
"Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram," said David Downing, the agency's deputy director. "They're giving us a lot of metrics and these metrics can really help give you an idea of where people are coming from and who is coming."
Just look at the phenomenal growth of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's YouTube channel: There were 1.1 million hits in the first part of 2014. That's compared to the five years it took to get to get to 1.1 million YouTube hits. The agency's Twitter followers are up about 200 percent compared to last year, Downing said.
Old-fashioned websites are blowing up, too. There were 1.6 million hits to the county's tourism websites from January to May. That's an increase of 108 percent, or more than double the number of tourism-related Web hits over the same period last year.
The best part of those numbers, Downing said: Fifty-eight percent are new visitors to Pinellas' tourism websites.
Then there's old-fashioned media. Requests for copies of Gulf to Bay Magazine, the tourism magazine Pinellas produces with the Tampa Bay Times, are up 60 percent this year.
"That's someone going to the website, entering their name and their snail-mail address," Downing said. "You have to have a pretty good reason to do that."
Another sign of a blockbuster summer: For the first time the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area made priceline.com's annual list of its top 10 beach destinations. That list is based on the number of Pinellas hotel bookings made through Priceline from June 1 to Aug. 31.
"These are people who have actually given their credit card and are booking that destination for the summer," said Priceline travel editor Brian Ek.
"St. Pete-Clearwater is a destination that typically pops up on our spring break lists quite frequently," Ek said. "But for the summer, this is the first time we've seen it rank so highly among beach destinations."
But the most concrete number indicating the strength of Pinellas tourism this summer may be $3.9 million. That's how much tourist development tax the county collected in April — a 22 percent jump from the same month last year and the biggest April in county history.
And a strong April typically leads to a strong May, June and July.
"The very end of April was strong, and that should lead into May," Downing said. "We also have anecdotal evidence of that strength. We've heard from a lot of hotels that this summer is looking really strong."
The TradeWinds Island Grand Resort reported that 97 percent of its 796 rooms have already been booked through June and 98 percent have been booked through July.
"I don't know the last time we had that high of an occupancy," said Keith Overton, president of the St. Pete Beach resort.
All of those tourists won't have far to go to flock to the Pinellas beaches. In the summer, the county aims its tourism marketing efforts at the "drive market" — anyone close enough to drive to the beaches. That includes the Tampa Bay area, the Orlando and Central Florida region, and everything south of Atlanta.
The new Copa Airlines flights from Panama to Tampa International Airport gave the bay area its first direct connection to Latin American tourism. And last week, Pinellas launched its new tourism marketing campaign, "Live Amplified," to attract more of the younger, diverse demographic of tourists that have started visiting the beaches.
"We have research that shows we are appealing to a wider audience," Downing said, "and our metrics suggest that audience is growing younger."
It's not just the summer, though. The 2014 Pinellas tourism season already looks like another record breaker. The county has collected $21.2 million in tourist bed tax dollars in the first seven months of the fiscal year.
That's 12 percent ahead of last year's record bed tax collections.
"We're having a record year," Downing said, "on top of our record year last year."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.