Manatee and Sarasota counties rolled out the details on a record tourism season.
Numbers of visitors: up. Amount they shelled out for sundries, food, lodgings: up.
Overall economic impact: way up.
"Everybody around the state of Florida is breaking visitation records," Elliott Falcione, head of Manatee's tourism bureau, said when he delivered his annual report. Not surprisingly, he said, the Sarasota-Manatee area is benefiting from the upswing -- more than ever before.
In 2014, for the fourth consecutive year, tourism records in Florida reached a new high: 97.3 million visitors spent $82 billion. They generated 23 percent of the state's sales taxes, a major source of revenue for Florida's schools and other government services.
The impact on Sarasota-Manatee meant more out-of-towners seeking surf, sand, sunshine and whatever else the area could offer from spring training games to street festivals.
Bradenton area visitors in 2014:
- Exceeded 2.91 million, a 2.7 percent increase.
- Spent more than $451.6 million, up 12.1 percent.
- Generated an economic impact of $994.7 million, up 9.4 percent.
As staggering as those numbers appear, early indications are that the region may be on course for a record-breaking 2015 as well.
From January to March, bureau consultants counted 212,300 visitors -- up from 190,300 during the same period a year ago.
On Wednesday, Sarasota's tourism bureau released its October through March figures.
During the first six months of that county's fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Sarasota County counted 565,270 visitors, up 11.5 percent from the same period a year earlier.
Visit Sarasota County reported more than $595.3 million in tourist spending, up 16.4 percent. Its consultants say the total economic impact surpassed $1.13 billion, up 16.4 percent.
Falcione, however, warns that the soaring numbers should not make the hospitality industry overconfident. He prefers to express cautious optimism. "People get complacent during good times. We must prepare our industry for adverse occurrences. "Every decade has shown a period of recession or depression, Falcione said. "We have to anticipate that."
Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Manatee tourism bureau, said diversifying the county's appeal beyond its identity as a beach destination is part of that strategy. She referred to agri-tourism, which is already taking root across Manatee. The fishing village of Cortez, with its seafood festivals and maritime museum, tours being offered by family operations such as the Mixons' citrus grove in Bradenton and the Dakins' dairy in Myakka City already have gained reputations as visitor attractions.
Throughout the country, family farms have learned how to generate extra income with corn mazes, zip lines, petting zoos and food festivals -- all of which could be potential ideas for rural Manatee.
The film industry continues to be a potential source of income apart from the typical tourist. It reportedly generated a $2.5 million economic impact in Manatee last year -- largely because of "Highway to Sell," a Discovery Channel series about locals who restore vintage cars, for which production crews had to be in the county for six weeks.
Diversifying the county's promotion strategy and always seeking new markets will be key, as well, Falcione said.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, typically a reliable source of visitors for Florida, tourism bureaus had to be prepared to shift more focus to the Midwest and Southeast, Falcione said.
International visitors in Manatee totaled 109,110 last year, up 37.4 percent, with Canada and Britain being the more prevalent sources.
Falcione thinks it may be time to expand the bureau's outreach more into Scandinavia and Ireland.
Two consequences of Manatee's success as a tourism destination need to be better addressed if the county wants to keep those visitors coming back: better traffic management and a shortage of hotel accommodations.
Contrary to what the public may presume, most visitors do not stay in Manatee's 6,200 hotel and motel rooms. They tend to stay in houses, condos and townhouses that are advertised as vacation rentals. That has especially caused tensions on Anna Maria Island, where houses have been built or renovated as multi-bedroom rentals in neighborhoods that used to be strictly residential.
County planner John Osborne said existing development orders for communities such as Heritage Harbour and Lakewood Ranch already include approvals for about 2,000 more hotel rooms that have yet to be built. Falcione hopes at least 800 to 1,000 additional overnight lodgings can be ready within three to five years. Yet he acknowledges that those accommodations will have to be on the mainland. "Essentially, Anna Maria Island is built out."
The county will soon put out an invitation for proposals for hoteliers interested in building a hotel next to the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.
Falcione acknowledged that residents, especially on the barrier islands, complained that traffic congestion during the most recent tourist season was the worst it has ever been.
Sarasota and Manatee elected officials have asked the Florida Department of Transportation to look at all beach-mainland routes and make suggestions on how to improve the flow before the next influx of visitors.
Ferries, water taxis, additional trolleys and other options are being suggested. "There are a lot of concepts out there," Falcione said. "Everybody acknowledges that multi-modal transportation is the way to go."
The tourism bureau can be "part of that discussion" and have a role in securing "a lot of sincere collaboration" among those in the tourism industry in seeking and implementing ways to get future visitors less dependent on their cars, Falcione said.
Sarasota Herald Tribune May 6, 2015