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Tourism panel calls for united front

Several leaders of Tampa Bay's fragmented tourist industry said Thursday they want to develop for the first time a common strategy for marketing the region to vacationers.

And the leaders of the effort say it is time the region recognizes its true competition is Orlando.

"We've got a crisis in tourism," said Pinellas County Commission and Tourist Development Council Chairman George Greer. "Tampa International Airport is losing carriers and passengers. Busch Gardens is losing visitors to Orlando. We have to recognize that if people do not land at Tampa, fewer will reach Pinellas. It's time we put the puzzle together and begin marketing Tampa Bay as a region."

Greer's council then voted unanimously to come up with steps to accomplish that. And spokesmen for Tampa International, Busch Gardens and the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council all said they welcome the effort and hope to formalize their support shortly.

"It's time each group put its marketing plans on the table so we can all work together. The programs are already there. It's just a matter of broadening them," said Thom Stork, Busch Gardens' marketing director and Hillsborough TDC member.

"We're hoping for something more comprehensive than both sides using the words Tampa Bay in their advertising," said Gene Gray, an assistant Hillsborough County administrator.

Making the words reality will take some doing. The visitor industries of Tampa and Pinellas County have little in common except geography. Pinellas is a beach vacation market with twice as many hotel rooms as Tampa. Tampa is only a few days' stay that sells urban nightlife and shopping.

Pinellas and Busch Gardens are responsible for almost all of the advertising money that is spent in the region trying to woo vacationers. Tampa spends most of its resort tax money trying to get business meetings to fill its convention center.

And both have entrenched marketing organizations that have operated independently for years.

For instance, until last year, the maps in Tampa's brochures never showed the Pinellas side of the bay. And Pinellas' beach-oriented advertising rarely uses the phrase Tampa Bay, referring to the area as St. Petersburg/Clearwater or the Pinellas beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.

Proponents propose not to undo any of the independent programs that promote the area to tourists. Some likely spots for cooperation are shared booths at travel trade shows, combining tours for visiting travel agents and joint lobbying efforts aimed at getting more airline service at Tampa International.

The effort would key in on getting vacationers to fly to Tampa, then take day trips to Walt Disney World and Orlando attractions.