The Hernando County Commission made a smart investment in its tourism industry last week, asking overnight guests to pay a higher bed tax to help draw even more visitors to the county.
With little debate, commissioners unanimously approved a higher tourist tax to 5 percent. The 2-cents-on-the-dollar increase will finance the east side visitors center and allow greater promotional and advertising of the county's tourist draws. Without the new money, the county faced the prospect of shutting the center at Interstate 75 and State Road 50 or curtailing its promotional plans.
Neither was an ideal choice and commissioners earlier had scuttled a plan to close the visitors center. It serves as a gateway from the interstate to the county, helps promote recreational opportunities to the east and is a valuable asset in directing customers to Ridge Manor businesses. It had been targeted for potential closure because it served 5,000 visitors last year, just one-fifth of the clientele that came through the west side visitors center, inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, during its first year of operation.
But commissioners made a pragmatic choice: Keep the center, buff up the promotional and advertising budget and finance it with the first increase in the tax on overnight accommodations in 16 years. The increase is projected to raise $260,000 annually, bringing the total annual budget for tourist development to $630,000. The timing is opportune. Statistics from May show the county's hoteliers enjoying higher occupancy and room rates and more revenue per room compared to 2013. The numbers are attributed to an improving economy, pent up demand from people who put off vacations in past years, growing special events, booming attendance at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and the county's effort to market Hernando's tourism potential.
It also should translate to a shot in the arm for the tourism-related employment in the county. Those jobs numbered 5,000 before the recession, but employment has since dropped to 3,000. According to state statistics, every 85 domestic visitors creates one new job.
In a county routinely near the top of the state unemployment rankings, the investment in tourism is an investment in the local economy and one the commissioners were smart to recognize.