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Pinellas County tourism posts highest-grossing month in its history

Start with stellar weather. Add a popular attraction about a dolphin with a prosthetic tail. Toss in pent-up demand for some fun in the sun.

The result: March was the most lucrative month for tourism tax dollars in Pinellas County history.

The $4.5 million collected from the county's bed tax marked "the single highest-grossing month in the history of Pinellas County tourism — not just for March but for any month in any year," said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county's tourism marketing arm.

That shattered the previous record of $4.18 million set in March 2008.

In general, tourism dipped as the recession took hold and took another hit after the BP oil spill in 2010 scared tourists away from Florida.

The rebound in Pinellas County has been building for a while. Last year's tourism tax dollars were up 7.5 percent. In fact seven of the past 12 months have been among the highest ever recorded for those months. And since October, the tourism tax dollar tally is already up 12.6 percent.

Anecdotes back up the numbers.

"It's the peak of our peak season. I think this was our best March I can recall since 9/11," said Scott Naley, front desk supervisor at the Postcard Inn in St. Pete Beach who has worked the same property for 15 years. "People were spending."

David Coover, vice president and general manager of the Middle Grounds Grill in Treasure Island, called March one of the restaurant's best months with revenues up 12 percent from a year ago.

"Everybody's saying what a great season it was," Coover said.

The 5 percent bed tax, which is tacked onto hotel and motel bills, is funneled to the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council to promote tourism. Some of the money goes to beach renourishment and sports facilities as well as marketing the area both nationally and internationally.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater executive director D.T. Minich, speaking to a group of business leaders last week, touted the surge in spring business as evidence that heavy marketing is paying off. Some 630,200 overnight visitors came to Pinellas County in March, spending $463 million.

Darlene Kole, president and CEO of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, also credited marketing efforts.

The chamber recently revamped its website, which is now translated into more than 150 languages. Over the past year, the number of unique visitors to the site jumped from 22,000 a month to 88,000.

"It was remarkable," Kole said. "We broke records in every sense — the hotels, the restaurants, the attractions, everybody."

Marketing wasn't the only reason for a marvelous March, however.

Spectacular weather drove spring breakers to the beaches in droves. The popular movie, Dolphin Tale continued to draw visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter, the injured dolphin with a prosthetic tail that inspired the movie.

Plus, consumer confidence was up strongly throughout the country at the time, meaning people were more likely to travel and spend disposable income.

Pinellas tourism leaders say they're confident this is just the start of great things. They're itching for August when the Republican National Convention comes to the bay area, bringing with it a block of 34,000 room nights for Pinellas County alone.

"We're hoping that the RNC is the exclamation point at the end of this incredible year we have going," Downing said.

Times staff writers Elizabeth Behrman and Mark Albright contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

Pinellas County tourism posts highest-grossing month in its history 05/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 4:16pm]

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