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Tourism bounces back around Tampa Bay as COVID-19 pandemic eases

Boosters are reporting strong growth in visitors in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Beach goers along Clearwater Beach in March. In the following months, both Hillsborough and Pinellas County have seen tourism rebound to its pre-pandemic state.
Beach goers along Clearwater Beach in March. In the following months, both Hillsborough and Pinellas County have seen tourism rebound to its pre-pandemic state. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jun. 15
Updated Jun. 15

The Tampa Bay tourism industry is on the rebound this spring — a strong indicator the region is wading out of the COVID-19 pandemic and life is returning to normal.

Since March, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have seen hotel occupancy and tourism tax revenue that rival numbers from 2019, tourism officials said. Visitation statistics and average daily rates for lodging skyrocketed, too, as businesses leave pandemic-era travel and gathering restrictions behind and more Floridians are vaccinated.

“Those numbers are going gangbusters to the north,” said Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, which promotes tourism in Pinellas County. “It’s way better than anyone expected.”

This April, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater found that Pinellas County made $8.7 million from bed taxes, the fees tacked onto the cost of lodging. That means those communities saw 30 percent more in returns than in the same month in 2019.

Tourism tax collections in and around Tampa topped $4 million this May, a 22 percent increase from the previous monthly pre-pandemic record, according to data from Visit Tampa Bay, the organization that promotes travel to Hillsborough County. (Hillsborough also increased its tourism tax rate from 5 to 6 percent, the same as Pinellas County, in September 2019.)

Hotel occupancy soared above 70 percent in Hillsborough County this April and in Pinellas County this May. On Memorial Day weekend, both sides of Tampa Bay saw booking rates nearing capacity and a rise in leisure business revenue.

The average daily price for hotels in St. Petersburg and Clearwater — $242.26 — is also 28.6 percent higher than this time two years ago.

“We just had the strongest April that we’ve ever had in the history of this destination,” said Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “And that’s pretty remarkable because last April was the worst month ever.”

Hayes said the tourism boom in 2021 has lasted beyond Easter and spring break season, when travel from out of state normally begins to slow. Pinellas County started outdoing pre-pandemic statistics around March 13 this year — and it hasn’t slowed since.

“People are more than ready to get back and travel,” Hayes said.

With renewed interest in post-pandemic vacationing, he expects the current upward trend to persist through early fall.

The rebound in tourism is also spreading to business and interest group meetings and conventions, according to Visit Tampa Bay. Corrada said multiple high-profile meetings and at least twelve conventions are scheduled in Tampa this summer.

And more boosts are on the way, Corrada said, with the eventual return of cruises and international travelers.

“We still don’t have everything from before the pandemic back, and the region is doing well,” Corrada said. “You can’t refute these black-and-white numbers.”