Advertisement
  1. Business

Pinellas County tourism surged in 2016 despite challenges of Zika, Pulse shooting and more

Visitors to Clearwater Beach settle into the sand while visiting the popular tourist destination in late 2015. Despite challenges like Zika and economic turmoil abroad last year, tourism surged in Pinellas County. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Time
Visitors to Clearwater Beach settle into the sand while visiting the popular tourist destination in late 2015. Despite challenges like Zika and economic turmoil abroad last year, tourism surged in Pinellas County. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Time
Published Jan. 24, 2017

CLEARWATER — It was a year of many hurdles for Florida tourism.

Zika, the Pulse nightclub shooting, algae blooms and economic turmoil in two of the state's largest visitor markets: Brazil and the United Kingdom.

And yet, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater posted its largest boost in tourism tax dollars in years, jumping from $39.3 million in 2015 to a whopping $49.5 million generated in the 2016 fiscal year, which ended in September. In 2011, that bed tax revenue was just $25 million.

"We are on track to surpass that this coming year," said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long at the agency's annual tourism marketing meeting, held Monday evening at the new Wyndham Grand hotel on Clearwater Beach. Bed tax collection figures show that October and November saw about a 9 percent increase from that time in 2015.

A presentation by the agency's executive director, David Downing, highlighted a focus in existing markets of Chicago, New York City and Orlando, attempting to attract not just residents from those cities, but the millions of tourists who are visiting there.

VSPC is also working to lay the groundwork in China, despite the lack of a direct flight to Florida.

The agency announced that this year's marketing campaigns would focus on colorful advertisements with lines like "Craft It," "Splash It" and "Gulf It." They will be posted on buses, trains and other platforms in a handful of northern cities.

VSPC is partnering with European travel agency Virgin Holidays to offer discounted trips to the region. It is also advertising on the New York Times website with interactive 360-degree videos of local activities and attractions.

In past years it has sent out yetis in bathing suits on Pinellas beaches to create a viral marketing campaign in northern cities and partnered with Uber in Chicago to promote the region by giving out free flights. The agency did not announce specific viral campaigns like those it that would be pursuing in 2017.

"We have something equally ridiculous coming this year," Downing said.

Beyond the broken records and ambitious plans, Downing expressed an underlying concern about continued public funding for the tourism efforts.

"It's open season for Visit Florida right now," he said of the agency's statewide counterpart, which is battling with state legislatures after an unpopular $1 million deal with rapper Pitbull. VSPC does not receive funding from Visit Florida, but partners with it on international campaigns, Downing said.

Contact Alli Knothe at @aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.