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Tourism is booming around Tampa Bay for the July 4th weekend

Hotels are booked more solid that they were in July 2019, before the pandemic.
Deb Canning from Kenneth City, relaxes while reading a book at the City of Gulfport Municipal Beach in March.
Deb Canning from Kenneth City, relaxes while reading a book at the City of Gulfport Municipal Beach in March. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 2

The Fourth of July holiday weekend could be the busiest on record for Tampa Bay hotels, a welcome turn of events for a tourism industry still recovering from the pandemic doldrums.

Hotel occupancy and daily rates are skyrocketing in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, tourism officials say. Both sides of the bay are building on the vacationing boom that has extended into the summer, past the normal Florida visitor dropoff around Easter.

At Wyndham Grand on Clearwater Beach, Independence Day weekend is nearly sold out, said Miguel Diaz, area director of sales and marketing.

Occupancy through July tops 95 percent.

“We knew leisure travel would be the first to come back from the pandemic, but we were still surprised by the turnout,” he said.

The demographics of hotel visitors are also more diverse than years past, steering beyond the usual gaggle of families who travel in the summertime. Instead, younger people, friends and singles are booking time in West Central Florida.

And tourists are coming from Florida and out-of-state equally. The warmer season normally attracts visitors from inside the state.

“People are coming from all over,” Diaz said. “The beach is here to welcome them.”

Vacationers are staying in town longer, extending visits up to a day longer than they have in the past, he said.

That experience is playing out throughout Pinellas County.

Weekly average occupancy this year stands at 84 percent, or 6 percent higher than 2019, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Pinellas County tourism agency. The price for an overnight stay is climbing, too. During the week of June 20 to 26, hotels and vacation rentals cost $48 more, or $194.14 a night on average, compared to two years ago.

June is on track to be Pinellas’ best tourism month on record. In April, the county raked in $8.7 million from bed taxes, which are based on the cost of lodging.

“I started looking at the data, and I’m like holy cow,” said Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. “We expect to blow even the 2019 July 4 weekend out of the water, and that was record-breaking.”

Vacationers are not deterred, he said, by sporadic Red Tide blooms or looming tropical storms. People are anxious to travel, having saved up through the pandemic. Cancellations are few and far between, Hayes said.

Hillsborough County hotels are also bringing in more money. Hotel revenue from June 1 through 26 topped $57 million, over $7 million more than monthly revenue in June 2019.

And July 4 occupancy “will be high,” Stephanie Rodriguez from Visit Tampa wrote in an email.

“In addition to the holiday weekend, we have over 10,000 bikers in town for their United BikerzJamboree at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds. And 8,000 Elks who have their annual convention at the Tampa Convention Center.”

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Americans nationwide are on the move this Independence Day.

More than 47 million people are expected to travel this weekend, according to a forecast from AAA, the Auto Club Group. That predication is only 2.5 percent lower than estimates of July 4 travel in 2019, AAA says.

An expected 2.4 million Floridians will drive to their Independence Day destinations, the highest number on record for the holiday.

“Travel is back this summer, as Americans eagerly pursue vacations they’ve deferred for the last year-and-a-half,” AAA vice president for travel Debbie Haas said in a statement.

Several July 4 firework celebrations are planned around Tampa Bay, including shows in downtown Tampa, Treasure Island, Clearwater and off the St. Petersburg Pier.

Diaz of Wyndham said that after the slow pandemic year, the uptick in tourism is welcome.

“The tourism industry here is massive, and it’s been hit hard by the pandemic,” he said. But “2021 is shaping up to be better than 2019.”