CLEARWATER — March is traditionally the strongest month of the year for the local tourism industry. But Pinellas County has never had a March like this one: It collected a record $4.9 million in taxes from tourism.
That makes March 2013 the best tourism month in county history and the closest Pinellas has ever come to hitting the $5 million mark in a single month.
"It's record-breaking," said county tourism chief D.T. Minich. "It's pretty mind-boggling."
The 5 percent tourist development tax is tacked onto visitors' hotel bills and seasonal rents and goes for tourist advertising, beach nourishment and various brick and mortar projects, including Tropicana Field.
The boon in recent collections was not limited to March. Revenues collected in the first half of fiscal year 2013, which started in October, have far outpaced the same time period from last year.
The county has collected a total of $15.7 million in the first six months of the fiscal year, an 11 percent improvement from the first half of fiscal year 2012.
But the most important indicator of tourism's strength is March. Pinellas collected about $4,969,000 in March 2013, according to the Pinellas County Tax Collector's Office, a 10 percent increase from the previous record month: March 2012.
Minich said the same factors that contributed to a record 2012 are continuing in 2013.
Last year was Pinellas' best year ever thanks to an improving economy that allowed domestic and especially Florida visitors to start hitting the Pinellas beaches again.
European tourism stayed strong, and the county reaped the benefits of targeting the New York market while managing to avoid any drop-off when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the northeast in October. Over a three and a half month period that began last winter, the county spent about $2.5 million in advertising in New York and Chicago, cities that rose to become the No. 1 and 2 feeders of tourists to Pinellas this year.
It also helped that Easter fell on March 31 this year instead of in April. But more important, Minich said, Pinellas saw a surge in nearly every one of its markets.
The only drop off was in the Florida market, and even that was slight.
"Usually we see some fallback," Minich said. "But to have a single month where you have nearly everything in the positive, that's amazing."
According to Research Data Services Inc., which compiles a monthly profile of visitors for the county, an estimated 651,600 people visited Pinellas County in March 2013. That's an increase of 3.4 percent, or 21,000 more visitors from March 2012.
The biggest percentage increase came from Europeans, up 7.5 percent from the same month last year. Pinellas saw 51,476 European visitors in March 2013. Minich credited the Edelweiss airline's new nonstop route from Zurich, Switzerland to Tampa that started last year with the influx of Europeans, who have traditionally vacationed in late summer, not early spring.
"One factor is that we're not seeing a drop in European visitation," he said. "The Edelweiss flight is doing phenomenal for us. Our Swiss numbers are really, really strong."
But even stronger are the county's Eastern European numbers. When the Swiss carrier began making nonstop flights to Tampa — the area's first direct route to continental Europe in 15 years — tourism officials expected to see mostly Germans and Swedes at the arrivals gate. Instead, the majority of the visitors are coming from Eastern Europe where, officials speculated, they likely have fewer travel options for getting to the United States.
"It was a surprise to the airline operator, and it was a surprise to us," said David Downing, deputy director of the county's tourism agency. In response, the county plans to target places like the Czech Republic more intensely.
The biggest increase in March visitors came from the Midwest. More than 272,360 people visited Pinellas County, a 6.7 increase, or 17,000 more Midwest visitors compared to the same month last year.
The number of visitors from the Southeast and Northeast stayed stable from 2012 to 2013, drawing 20,851 and 188,313 visitors, respectively. The only decrease was in Florida visitors, down almost 6 percent to 33,883 in March 2013.
April's numbers aren't in yet, but Minich is hopeful that the trend will continue through the summer.
"I think April's going to be real strong," he said. "It might not have as huge a number, but we're starting the summer campaign and making a huge push up the I-4 corridor, from Orlando to St. Pete and Clearwater, using radio and billboard ads for Memorial Day weekend."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.