TAMPA — Don't call it a comeback. That's because — technically — Hillsborough County tourism still hasn't fully rebounded from the Great Recession.
But the recovery is almost complete: Hillsborough collected $21.2 million in tourist development taxes in fiscal year 2013. That's the most the county has collected in six years.
The 2013 figure is also just $646,000 shy of the 2007 pre-recession record of $21.8 million.
"The economy has gotten better, people are spending money," said Santiago Corrada, the chief executive officer of Visit Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough tourism agency. "We see it with leisure travel. We see it with conventions. When we hit rock bottom with $17.5 million, that wasn't happening."
That bottom was fiscal year 2010, when tourist tax collections in the county plunged 20 percent from the record high set in 2007 — the year that the global downturn began and rattled tourism markets across the Unites States.
The tourist development tax in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is a 5 percent surcharge on every short-term accommodation. Also known as the bed tax, it's considered one of the best measures of the tourism industry because it's directly correlated to hotel bookings.
The same metric that indicates Hillsborough tourism is poised to recover has also shown unprecedented growth in Pinellas County tourism. Pinellas garnered a record $31 million in bed taxes in fiscal year 2013.
Hillsborough tourism has seen a steady recovery since 2010's low point. Bed tax collections hit $21 million in fiscal year 2012, but that was a historic year: The Republican National Convention filled tens of thousands of hotel rooms on both sides of the bay.
What's more impressive is that Hillsborough actually did slightly better the year after the Republican convention — without an RNC-like event, collecting $162,000 more in bed taxes.
Corrada sees the Hillsborough tourism market rebounding fully in 2014 and then setting records.
"Our future years look stronger and stronger," Corrada said. "If Bollywood can deliver the way it's supposed to deliver … we're projecting a very good year."
The 2014 International Indian Film Academy's Weekend & Awards — also known as the "Bollywood Oscars" — are coming April 26 to Raymond James Stadium. The awards show is expected to bring 35,000, and up to 60,000 more are expected to attend related events.
Hillsborough officials also believe they've booked a strong lineup of conventions, like the IBM Smarter Commerce Summit, which is expected to fill 10,000 room nights in May.
Officials hoped that the RNC would revive Tampa Bay's flagging convention business, which suffered greatly during the recession. But Corrada said the rebound in Hillsborough tourism is about more than just that.
"In my opinion, you can't ever pin it on one thing," Corrada said. "The recession has ended and people are traveling again. We're also being a whole lot smarter in how we're marketing the destination."
Last April, Corrada took over leadership of Visit Tampa Bay. A month later the agency unveiled a new brand that was already in the works to better sell tourists on the history, culture and urban-flavored experience of Tampa as a complement to Pinellas County's beaches.
The two markets aren't just different geographically.
Pinellas tourism has boomed in the past two years. Pinellas set a bed tax record in fiscal year 2012 thanks to the RNC — then beat it by 8 percent in 2013.
Pinellas officials credit their tourism boom with relentless and refined marketing efforts. And while both agencies work together in many respects, there are important differences.
Corrada said it's harder to market a county that doesn't have popular beaches. Hillsborough is one of only three non-beach counties in Florida's top 10 in tourist tax collections. The other two (Orange and Osceola) are fed by Orlando's theme parks.
While most of Pinellas' bed tax revenue goes to tourism marketing, Hillsborough shares its revenues with entities like the Florida Aquarium and Lowry Park Zoo.
Even their marketing budgets are very different: In the last budget year, Hillsborough spent $1.8 million. Pinellas spent $12 million to market the beaches.
But Corrada sees more than just recovery in Hillsborough's tourism future. The convention business will keep growing, he said, and there's no lack of big events on the horizon.
After Bollywood, Tampa will host the NCAA Women's Final Four national basketball championship in 2015; the Frozen Four college hockey national championship in 2016; and the college football playoff national championship game in 2017.
Add the new Copa Airlines route that connects Tampa International Airport directly to Panama City, a hub to the rest of Latin America, and Corrada is bullish on Hillsborough tourism.
"I'm very optimistic with all these big events," he said, "and now with a pipeline for more tourists and business travelers, the stars are aligning pretty nice."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.
Hillsborough bed taxes
In fiscal years
Source: Visit Tampa Bay/Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office Note: Fiscal year ends Sept. 30.