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The numbers are in: Tampa Bay's tourism industry crushed spring break season

Beachgoers fill Clearwater Beach in March at the peak of the spring break tourism season. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published May 9

Tampa Bay's tourism business shot up again during its peak season, with both sides of the bay reporting record-breaking travel numbers thanks to the usual influx of events and spring breakers.

Pinellas and Hillsborough County use the tourism tax charged for overnight stays as a metric for measuring industry success. Both said they collected about 7 percent more in tourism tax dollars between January and the end of March this season than they had the year before.

The uptick was not only thanks to an influx of visitors, but to increasing room cost and occupancy rates, according to tourism agencies Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay.

"We're home to America's No. 1 Beach for the second year in a row and we've been touting that in all of our marketing efforts," said Pinellas tourism bureau spokesman, Leroy Bridges. "That combined with the destination's increased diversity of hotel product and experiences in our many different communities continues to create a destination product that is unrivaled in the state."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Brutal winter brings spring breakers to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater in droves

In Pinellas County, the average cost of a hotel room went up about 4 percent in the month of March, according to travel data collected by STR, Inc. Over the month of March, Hillsborough County had nearly 88 percent of its rooms filled and a 2 percent uptick in its room rate.

For the second time ever, Hillsborough collected more than $4 million in March. In total, from January through March, the county took in about $11.4 million in tourism tax funds.

"With several major festivals and key conventions, March has always been our strongest month for visitors," said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada in a statement. "But this year's numbers show the incredible strength and dynamism of our destination."

Pinellas collected $9.4 million in March alone, and a total of $20.7 million in the same period.

Hillsborough's numbers in direct comparison to Pinellas may seem small, but the county has shown steady growth — especially for a destination without lush beaches. Hillsborough's tourist tax is also 5 percent of what's charged for every overnight stay, while Pinellas taxes 6 percent.

That could soon change because the Hillsborough County Commission is discussing whether to raise the tourism tax. The money collected is not only used to fund the destination marketing, but also funds county projects. If commissioners pass the tax hike, it could mean another $7 million in annual funding for the county.

The first quarter for both destinations will likely be strong next year, too. Not only because of spring break, but also thanks to Gasparilla, annual conventions and baseball spring training. Bridges called the period Florida's "bread and butter" months, but said his agency is trying to grow its August through November numbers.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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