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Tourist tax declines slow in Hillsborough and Pinellas

Collection rates for 2020 are down close to 25 percent from a year ago in both counties

Tourist tax dollars are starting to rebound in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, but both locations remain significantly down from the same time last year.

Tourism taxes collected by Pinellas County were down about 24 percent in June compared to the same month a year ago. Tourism officials, however, said they had braced for worse.

“I’m so glad our projections were wrong,” Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater CEO Steve Hayes said during a video conference meeting Wednesday.

Pinellas numbers for the month showed tourist tax collections at $4.3 million, down from $5.7 million in June 2019. The drop was not as severe as the previous two months. Collections were off 89 percent in April and 56 percent in May. The 6 percent tax on overnight accommodations pays for the tourism agency, plus capital projects. With the recent boost and the strong start of the year pre-pandemic, the county’s overall tourism tax collections are about 23 percent below where they were at this point last year.

In Hillsborough, the year-to-year comparisons, on a percentage basis, can be confusing because the county increased its tourist tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in September 2019. Regardless, the tax collections reported in July, representing overnight stays in June, were $1.56 million, down from nearly $2.5 million in July 2019.

But even the dreary numbers were an improvement. For May and June combined, the county reported collections of just $1.63 million.

“Absolutely, we’re nowhere near where we want to be, but this... shows hope, it shows that everything is trending in the right direction,‘' Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, told the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council Wednesday morning.

The outlier remains the convention and special event portion of the tourism industry which has not yet rebounded from the cornavirus pandemic, Corrada said.

For instance, downtown Tampa hotels relying heavily in convention business reported occupancy rates for the past three months at 19 percent, a 75 percent decline from the same time in 2019.

Between now and Oct. 1, the city and county still have 11 smaller events scheduled that could generate more than 2,000 room nights. For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, there are 147 conventions and events scheduled — including the Super Bowl — that are expected to generate nearly 390,000 room nights.

But the convention calendar for the rest of 2020 shouldn’t be construed as definite, said Lou Plasencia who does hospitality sales and consulting work here and in other major markets.

“I want to make sure we’re not misleading local businesses. The chances of those conventions actually materializing are not good,’' he said. “We’re seeing massive cancellation pretty much across the board and I think that will continue at least until there’s a vaccine.''

For the first 10 months of the fiscal year, Hillsborough’s tourist tax collections, at the 6 percent rate, stood at $27.2 million. A year earlier, the county collected $29.9 million for the first 10 months of fiscal year, using the 5 percent tax rate. Without the tax rate increase, collections would be down about 24 percent from a year ago.

Visit Tampa Bay also showed its “Relaunch and Recovery’' leisure travel campaign that is financed with a county-approved $800,000 appropriation left over from 2019 tourist tax collections. The campaign had a soft roll out in June, paused in July because of a spike in cornavirus cases, but resumed in full earlier this month.

It’s intended to highlight outdoor activities, open spaces, and no crowds at area amenities to try to lure leisure travelers seeking adventure or cultural opportunities in clean, safe environments. The marketing materials included photographs and video of activities like kayaking and boating along the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa, roller coasters at Busch Gardens and scenes of the Florida Aquarium and ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

The Tourist Development Council agreed unanimously to give Visit Tampa Bay an additional $1 million to continue the program through the end of 2020.

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