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Tourism ‘bed tax’ revenue for Pinellas and Hillsborough beats pre-pandemic numbers

Bicyclists ride under awning on path over water.
City of Tampa
City of Tampa
Tampa Riverwalk

Pinellas County had $9.8 million more in hotel tax collections compared to 2019; Hillsborough County was up $1.5 million.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a dent in tourism for the greater Tampa Bay region, but that trend was reversed for Pinellas and Hillsborough counties this fiscal year.

Pinellas County had over $72.5 million in “bed tax” revenue — taxes collected by hotels — from its tourism this fiscal year, beating fiscal 2019’s $62.7 million. Fiscal 2020 came in at $48.1 million.

Steve Hayes, president and CEO of the county’s tourism marketing agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said the high numbers are most likely due to pent-up demand caused by the pandemic.

“It was that mid-March and then going forward, where we saw double digit increases,” said Hayes. “And keep in mind, that's when the vaccinations happened. That's when people were getting out. People were starting to travel again, all of those things.”

Looking to 2022, Hayes expects to see new visitors as borders open to vaccinated international travelers.

“I think we still are going to see the increase, but I don't think it will be as great.”

Leisure travel has been the bulk of hotel tax revenue from the past year, but business travel is also slowly returning, according to Hayes.

“We're starting to see meetings and conference business come back. It's slow in returning, but it's starting to come back,” said Hayes.

“For us, we have more of the small meetings and board meetings, not the large conventions that you would see over in Tampa.”

However, business travel remains slow across the bay.

That’s according to Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association, who calls it “the last remaining recovery piece” for the area's tourism market.

Even then, Hillsborough also topped its pre-pandemic bed tax collection.

The 2021 fiscal year saw the county collect $36.9 million in bed tax revenue, compared to $30.4 million in fiscal 2020 and $35.4 million a year earlier.

The improvement can be attributed in part to the area’s marketing efforts, said Morrison.

He said the association worked with the Hillsborough Tourism Development Council and Hillsborough County Commission to double the budget for advertising Tampa Bay as a tourist destination.

“As opposed to sitting quietly and hoping that folks would discover who we were, and that we were a destination worth considering, we bet on ourselves,” said Morrison.

They county used reserve money which Morrison likened to a “rainy day” fund to increase their marketing efforts during the pandemic.

“Our attitude and our projection was ‘Let's take care of positioning our hotels to be able to compete again for business,’” said Morrison.

Jorgelina Manna-Rea is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second straight semester with WUSF.