CLEARWATER — Little has stood in the way of Pinellas County's explosive tourism growth in recent years.
Then came Red Tide.
The arrival of toxic algae blooms on Pinellas beaches two months ago has finally stalled ever-climbing hotel bookings: The latest data available shows a 6 percent dip in overnight room sales in September. That's the biggest dip local hotels have seen in years.
The slower months of tourism season — and September is one of them — are sometimes flat in year-over-year hotel stays, or grow only slightly. But they are seldom down, except when a hurricane threatens.
"The worst of it was in October," said Tony Satterfield, the vice president of St. Pete Beach's Alden Suites Beachfront Resort and a board member of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council. "We're beginning to see a real uptick in December (bookings) and there are a couple good signs the impacts may be going away."
Local hotel data is considered a key indicator of how the tourism industry is performing, but the numbers come out two months after the fact, making it difficult to account for Red Tide's toll in real time.
September's hotel stats were released during the Tourist Development Council's monthly meeting on Wednesday. The report shows Pinellas County hotels sold 350,612 room nights this September. Last year, hotels booked 22,103 more room nights in the same month.
Bed tax collections also dropped, but by less than 1 percent. Pinellas County collects a 6 percent bed tax from visitors on the price for their overnight stays. The millions collected annually pay for tourism marketing and projects that attract visitors to the county.
While September's slight drop may not seem like much, the county has enjoyed seemingly unending growth in hotel bookings and bed tax collections. In September 2015, the tax on tourists grew nearly 20 percent compared to the year before; in 2016, 8 percent; and in 2017, 7 percent.
Even with the dip in September, Pinellas County has enjoyed another record year in bed tax revenue because of hotel bookings before Red Tide bathed beaches in dead fish. The county collected $59.7 million through September, which is a 9 percent increase compared to last year.
Had Red Tide hit earlier, it might be a different story. Sarasota and Bradenton, which have been dealing with Red Tide longer, sold roughly 145,000 rooms in September — a 24 percent decline compared to September sales last year.
Currently the Pinellas beaches seeing the biggest impact from Red Tide are from Indian Rocks Beach south to the Redington area, according to Kelli Hammer Levy, the county's environmental management director. Boca Ciega Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway are also dealing with the sight and smells of the toxic bloom.
The bloom, which has been around for a year, hit Pinellas County in September, and the county responded by dispatching boats and workers with rakes to scoop up dead fish and haul them away to the county's incinerator. That did more than just get a health hazard removed, Levy said.
"Hopefully this does benefit the business community as well as the residents who live there, because it's rough," she said.
As of October, 47 Pinellas County businesses had reported nearly $1.6 million in losses due to Red Tide, according to the Pinellas County Department of Economic Opportunity.
Red Tide or not, Satterfield said that hotels were going to show signs of flat-lining eventually.
"We have been on such a roll for so many years," Satterfield said. "You can't have double-digit increases every year."
Satterfiled said tourism can change so quickly, it's hard to predict what will happen more than 90 days out. January usually begins peak tourism season, and that's when local hotels and tourism-focused businesses make most of their money for the year.
As for the immediate future: Levy said the latest forecast from federal experts shows Pinellas might get some relief this weekend, as conditions are good for winds to push the bloom offshore.
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sara_dinatale.