The good news, long expected by tourism officials, is finally official: Pinellas County has become Florida's sixth "high tourism impact" county.
Pinellas 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. The 2013 figure makes it four consecutive years that Pinellas tourist tax collections have increased from the year before.
"This is year after year of sustained growth, and deep growth," said David Downing, deputy director of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.
Bed taxes are considered a concrete measure of the tourism industry because they count "heads in beds" — the number of visitors renting rooms. Pinellas joins Broward, Monroe, Orange, Osceola and Walton as Florida's only high tourism impact counties.
Under Florida law, counties that break the $30 million bed tax barrier can be designated as high tourism impact areas. That allows them to raise their tourist taxes to 6 percent, bringing in even more tax revenue to fund even more economic development projects.
That's not yet in the cards for Pinellas. The Tourist Development Council hasn't formally discussed it yet. The council would have to vote to recommend increasing the bed tax to the Pinellas County Commission, then the commissioners would vote on it.
Early indicators are that the 2014 tourism numbers will be even stronger than a record 2013. The county has already collected $6 million in bed taxes in the first three months of fiscal year 2013-14 — October, November and December — which is a 13 percent increase from the same three-month period in 2012-13.
This year Visit St. Pete-Clearwater teamed up with Florida's Natural orange juice to put an ad for the Pinellas beaches on the side of 12 million cartons of OJ. The ad campaign's sweepstakes website has already had 300,000 visitors, and more than 150,000 have registered to win a weeklong stay along the Pinellas beaches.
A more targeted winter campaign — Pinellas markets to certain ZIP codes in New York, Chicago and Toronto using the ineedsun.com URL — has more than 26,000 contest entries on its own. Both contests are exceeding their participation goals, officials said.
"We've never had any kind of marketing collateral that has had that kind of response from our target market," Downing said. "It's stunning, really."
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater also said its online and social media marketing initiatives paid off in 2013: More than 1.8 million visited the website, a 24 percent jump from 2012.
The number of Latin American visitors to Pinellas last year also increased by 30 percent to 96,000 total. Those numbers can only get better, Downing said. A new nonstop route between Panama and Tampa International Airport will certainly help.
"The percentage is more impressive than the actual number," Downing said. "But moving forward, we expect those numbers to improve dramatically.
"It won't happen overnight. But we're here to stay."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.