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After tourism hit all-time low, Tampa Bay sees signs of a bounce back

Tampa Bay’s tourism numbers aren’t great, but they’re better than most of the country’s.

March and April brought record lows in every metric leaders use to measure the health of the tourism industry.

Now local tourism leaders say there’s reason to be optimistic.

COVID-19 shuttered hotels, beaches and restaurants, obliterating the area’s leading industry and putting thousands out of work nearly overnight. But as the state phases in its reopening plan, Tampa Bay’s tourism-related businesses are starting to rebound faster than most the rest of the country.

“We’re hoping April is the worst we’ll ever see,” said Hillsborough County’s tourism bureau president Santiago Corrada. “We have been ahead of the curve for so many years and we’re well positioned to be ahead of the curve when things come back.”

Tampa Bay hotels are just over 40 percent full. That may be less than half their usual rate, but in wake of COVID-19 local leaders are taking the figure as a positive sign. It’s even worse elsewhere. Nearby in Orlando, where theme parks are still closed, just 22 percent of hotels are full, according to the latest data for the week ending May 23 compiled by industry analyst STR.

Tampa Bay’s hotel room occupancy rate is just slightly lower than that of New York City. The latest numbers also include Memorial Day weekend.

The numbers show Tampa Bay is attracting more visitors than other tourism centers in the state. South Florida is still in the early stages of opening its own beaches. Tampa Bay’s opened early last month.

Steve Hayes, the head of Pinellas County’s tourism bureau, said travelers looking to vacation responsibly are attracted to the area because of the outdoor activities that can be enjoyed while staying a safe distance from others.

“It’s visitors wanting a place they can get out away from large amounts of people,” Hayes said. “We have wonderful beaches and you can escape to them, but it’s the same sense with the parks and trails and things you can do outside.”

On Sunday, 13,652 passengers went through Tampa International Airport, the highest traffic the airport has seen since the number of passengers plunged as low as 1,500 to 2,000 per day in late March and early April.

“Overall, we’re seeing steady week-over-week increases and we are starting to see a few airlines restore some flights in July that were previously canceled,” said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps.

Further, Nipps said Tampa International Airport has had the lowest percentage of flights removed from the June schedule compared to state’s other large airports.

Hayes and Corrada said they’re still researching and surveying to see if the increase in visitors is mainly from those out of state or just out of county.

Hayes said, anecdotally, local hoteliers and business owners have seen a mix. Both leaders are preparing for reports slated to come out next week showing just how low each county’s hotel tax collection fell in April. Both counties have a 6 percent tax on overnight stays. That metric is often used to gauge the health of the local industry at large.

In March, the amount of tax dollars collected by each county dropped by half. The reports from April are likely to be much lower.

Corrada said he could see hotel occupancy growing as much as 10 percent a month if the number of COVID-19 cases in the state drop. But a second wave of infections could put the industry back where it was a couple months ago, he said.

The state announced Wednesday more than 1,300 new positive coronavirus cases. The state also announced 37 new deaths, five of which were in Hillsborough County.

In total, there are now 58,764 positive cases and 2,650 deaths in Florida.

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