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  1. Business

As Tampa Bay tourism booms, can we handle all these visitors?

While record Florida and Tampa Bay tourism has its economic upside, can area roads, hotels and restaurants handle the crush of visitors? Some Tampa Bay area leaders have expressed concerns that the area cannot. In this photo, people enjoy Clearwater Beach in July.

The drumbeat of record tourism numbers year after year and the state's willingness to spend more marketing dollars to lure ever more visitors are starting to bump into the realities of a Florida infrastructure that's struggling to keep up.

Florida's tourism boom, mightily hyped as the driver of the state's economic comeback, is approaching a delicate stage. Will more tourists come if too many hotels are full, restaurant lines grow too long and roads too clogged?

"It's a very challenging time for us. We have an amazing popularity. In three or four years I think Clearwater Beach will reach its max capacity for tourism in terms of structures." So said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne late last month at the Barrier Islands Government Council, according to coverage in the Tampa Bay Newspapers, community newspapers affiliated with the Tampa Bay Times.

Nobody likes to hear that overcrowding may soon ding Florida's remarkable tourism run, but the warning signs are starting to surface.

"With Florida on pace to host a record 100 million visitors this year, the state's tourism infrastructure is being challenged like never before," states an Associated Press story that ran in the national section of this weekend's New York Times. The story focused mostly on Florida's ports and airports. Ports are contending with rising 7 percent growth for already popular tourism cruises and the next generation of ever bigger ships. And the state's big airports — including Tampa International Airport — are reporting passenger numbers that are starting to swell rapidly again in the wake of the recent recession and with new direct flights to new U.S. and overseas cities.

Even smaller St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which depends almost exclusively on the rapid growth of tourist-focused Allegiant Airlines, is routinely reporting sharp year-over-year passenger gains.

Half of Florida's visitors already arrive by air.

Florida is not blind to the tourism crunch. Ports are expanding. Major airports including Tampa International and Orlando, have aggressive expansion plans to redesign their facilities to handle more passengers in more efficient and pleasing ways. Tampa International has added new domestic flights, notably direct flights to Seattle, and later this month will celebrate the inaugural direct flight of high-profile Lufthansa Airlines serving Tampa from Frankfurt, a major European hub.

But is it enough? What happens after the latest surge of visitors head to the beaches, cruise ships or theme parks?

Managers of area gulf-side towns like Clearwater Beach worry that beach traffic, already heavy in winter months, will become more difficult if towns like Treasure Island or St. Pete Beach start adding more hotel rooms and new tourism draws. Dozens of hotel concepts left on the drawing boards during the recession are being reconsidered, with investors ready to supply capital to build.

"It's akin to someone moving into a larger house," Robert Weissert, senior vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit research group that has studied Florida's infrastructure challenges, said in the New York Times story. "Someone needs to tell them that along with a bigger house comes higher heating and cooling costs and more maintenance costs."

In Pinellas County, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau is well aware of the balancing act ahead.

"We're busting records and people love our destination, but I think it does deserve conversation and input from everybody else," Rhonda Sanborn, CVB hospitality and education director, told Tampa Bay Newspapers. "Somehow we need to organize and think about where we want to be and what kind of place we want to live, work and play in. It definitely deserves conversation and thought at this turning point for us not to be a Miami."

Becoming another Miami is unlikely. But change, some of it likely expensive, seems inevitable as Tampa Bay's growing tourism demands inch closer to outgrowing the area's aging infrastructure.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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