BROOKSVILLE — In its quest to become a more attractive destination for overnight visitors, Hernando County appears to be off to a strong start in 2014.
Figures from the county's Tourism Development Council show that the county collected $184,412 in bed tax revenue from December through March, a 5.1 percent increase from the same period last year and 50 percent higher than the same period in 2012.
Although it's a small snapshot from a much larger picture, county tourism director Tammy Heon said the numbers are consistent with statewide trends and show that a steadily improving economy and rising consumer confidence are providing people with more cash to take vacations.
According to Heon, hotel occupancy rates in Hernando were at or close to 100 percent during many weekends from January through March, thanks to strong attendance at such events as the Florida Gulf Coast Clusters dog shows, the Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, and Art in the Park, all of which draw out-of-town visitors. And while final attendance figures haven't been released, early indications are that the Florida Blueberry Festival drew a record crowd in April, with Hernando hoteliers recording 371 room stays during that weekend.
Vinnie Sookhoo, manager of the Days Inn near Interstate 75, said that his hotel has remained busy since the start of the year.
"Our numbers have been way up, and it's been good to see," Sookhoo said. "There were a lot of people who said they enjoy this area very much."
Heon said the county's ramped-up efforts to market itself as a tourist destination have paid off. Visitors who stop by her office near the interstate or at the bureau's westside location at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park often say they are surprised by what the county has to offer.
"We're quite a find to people whose idea of Florida revolves around theme parks and beaches," Heon said. "We offer a lot of activities that perhaps they've never experienced."
Until a few years ago, Hernando's reputation as a tourist draw pretty much rested on luring travelers to aging attractions such as Weeki Wachee Springs or Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville. However, enhanced marketing efforts, using both mainstream media and social media sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube, are attracting visitors interested in outdoor activities such as golf, fishing, wildlife viewing, biking and kayaking, according to Heon.
As a result, the county's tourism tax receipts have risen steadily the past few years. Last year, the county earned $370,138 in bed taxes, up more than $40,000 from the year before. Overall, tourist-tax revenue has risen more than 18 percent since 2010.
Heon said that in a still-fragile economy, Hernando County seems like a bargain for budget-conscious families looking to squeeze the most out of every dollar.
"They're relieved when they realize they don't have to spend $100 a day at a theme park to have fun," she said. "We're a nice, reasonably priced alterative."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.