Tourism has jumped nearly 27% in Hillsborough County this year, but industry experts are questioning whether the robust travel industry will continue for the rest of 2023 and into next year.
“We’re sitting at a really good spot right now. I don’t think this is going to continue,” said Lou Plasencia, CEO of the Plasencia Group, a national hospitality consulting firm.
Yet Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the county’s tourism promotion agency, reminded the Hillsborough Tourist Development Council that “we’ve bucked national trends over and over and over and over again.”
The discussion came Thursday as the Tourist Development Council, an advisory board to the Hillsborough County Commission, tried to estimate budget growth over the next two years. It also dimmed otherwise rosy presentations from Corrada and Ron Barton, the assistant county administrator for economic prosperity, about the industry’s current boom.
For the first five months of the fiscal year, Hillsborough County tourist tax collections hit nearly $26 million, a jump of almost 27% over the same time in 2022.
Santiago noted data from the first quarter of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2022, showed hotel occupancy rates at 74.3% compared to 69% a year earlier. The average daily rate of $153 and the revenue per available room also topped the 2022 numbers by significant amounts. The occupancy rates for the early months of the second quarter topped 80%, he said.
“You can see obviously we are off to a stellar start for this year,” said Barton, who then asked the board to budget conservatively over the next two years, including a recommended growth rate of just 3% for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
“It seems tepid compared to the (current) growth rates, but I think that’s the whole point. I don’t know how long we can sustain such dynamic growth that we have,” Barton said.
Though budget discussions will continue, the board agreed to recommend a 3% growth rate for 2024 and 4% for 2025. Barton initially suggested a 6% rate for the second year.
“I think we have to rein in a little of the euphoria because these things don’t always last,” said Joe Collier, president of Mainsail Lodging and Development.
Under state law, the 6% tax on overnight accommodations must be spent on attractions or advertising to aid the tourism industry.
Part of the windfall from the current year will allow increased spending on sports-related tourism in the next budget.
The Tourist Development Council agreed to recommend up to $1 million a year for the next two years for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to use for luring high-profile national events, such as the Super Bowl, to Tampa. The board also agreed to budget $500,000 for each of the next two years for work on Hillsborough County’s Sportsplex, a 15-field complex that is in need of additional parking, lights and generators, said Barton.
The final budget decisions rest with Hillsborough County commissioners.