2012-12-12 / Business News

Tourism breaks records

Visitors come back in greater numbers

A man strolls along Englewood Beach. A man strolls along Englewood Beach. After selling his upscale retail clothing business in northern Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, Pelle Holmqvist is taking a big chunk of time off from “the rat race in Europe.” He escaped two feet of snow to arrive on these sunny shores a few weeks ago and is almost completely thawed out.

“I can feel the tension melting away, fading away,” Mr. Holmqvist said happily, as he sat in a T-shirt, shorts and shades outside his room at the Hideaway Waterfront Resort and Hotel in Cape Coral last Thursday with nothing to demand his attention except a novel, his iPad and a view of bright clouds fluttering across a deep blue sky.

He’s one of the millions of travelers arriving in greater numbers in Florida, boosting tourist or “bed” tax collections to record highs, and allowing hoteliers to start raising rates after they fell sharply during the recession.

Pelle Holmqvist takes time off from the “rat race” in Europe here in Southwest Florida. Pelle Holmqvist takes time off from the “rat race” in Europe here in Southwest Florida. Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties’ visitation and promotional agencies all reported record tax collection figures for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The funds pay to help market the area to tourists, restore beaches and maintain sports parks and other facilities.

The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau recorded $26.5 million in tourist taxes on paid accommodations for the fiscal year ending in September, a 9.2 percent increase over last year’s record-breaking $24.2, beating a previous record set in 2009.

“We’re hoping that trend will continue,” said VCB spokesperson Nancy Hamilton. “Part of it’s pent-up demand. People want their vacations, so they save over time and spend their money to come and have a wonderful experience here.”

Visitors to Fifth Avenue South in Naples snap photos of the holiday lights. 
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Visitors to Fifth Avenue South in Naples snap photos of the holiday lights. EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that tax collections for the fiscal year set a record at $14.9 million. The previous record was from the fiscal year ending September 2008 with $14.8 million.

“The record-setting tourist tax revenue reflects a new-found confidence among our visitors to spend their savings on travel and entertainment,” said Jack Wert, executive director for the Naples CVB, in a statement. “Our business community is reporting more visitor activity and a corresponding rise in tourism industry employment opportunities.”

Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau records show tourist tax collections up 11 percent to $1.5 million, breaking a previous record of $1.4 million for the fiscal year ending September 2004.

Guests crowd McCabe’s Irish Pub in Naples. Guests crowd McCabe’s Irish Pub in Naples. The influx of taxes shows little sign of abating for agencies now.

“Season looks like it’s coming in very strong, so it’s not an anomaly,” said Charlotte VCB director Lorah Steiner. “Last year was a record year in the history of the bureau. That was true for many counties in Florida.”

The state’s tourism agency, Visit Florida, said tourism and recreation taxable sales for Florida from January through August 2012 were $49 billion, representing a year-over-year increase of 7.5 percent over the same period in 2011.

After seeing a spike in customers last year, Donna Huey, manager of Fish Cove Adventure Golf, a 36-hole miniature golf course on Charlotte Harbor in Port Charlotte, is preparing for the long lines of customers to hit after Jan. 1.

“We know it’s coming,” she said, noting that there is a lull in business typical between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for some destinations. “We get new balls and new clubs and make sure we have enough supplies for everybody.”

Manager Donna Huey and her daughter Shawna have prepared for a busy season. Manager Donna Huey and her daughter Shawna have prepared for a busy season. Seasonal sales aren’t quite hopping yet for Peace Frogs, a gift shop at Tin City, the waterfront mall filled with gift and amusement stores in Naples. Manager Angelo Mei held down the fort nearly alone in the fluorescent-lit glow among the sweaters and jewelry and other knickknacks last Thursday night.

He opened the back door of Peace Frogs to a rain-slicked parking lot. There were only a few cars parked there. That surprised him because usually people come in off the beaches or the streets to shop when it rains.

“I know when it’s slow at night it looks like the end of the world but it isn’t,” said Mr. Mei. “I’m not jumping with joy. We need to make more money, but business has come back.”

Customers get ready to hit the greens at Fish Cove Adventure Golf. Customers get ready to hit the greens at Fish Cove Adventure Golf. Employment, room rates up

Visit Florida said an increase in visitors to the state in the third quarter this year led to direct travel-related employment, which rose 1.5 percent during the same period, an addition of 15,000 jobs.

Hideaway Waterfront Resort owner Mike Murnane in Cape Coral provided a few of those jobs. He hired two new workers this year for 30 hours per week, he said. That’s significant in a small boutique operation like his, with only 19 rooms.

“This last month of November our revenue of bed tax was up 14 percent from a year ago,” he said. “It may have something to do with the visibility of our property or that our property is a boutique style or more likely that the economy seems to be changing and we’re seeing a lot of guests purchasing homes or looking for homes to retire in. We also seem to see a dramatic increase in the European visitors.”

That night, 40 percent of the occupied rooms were filled by visitors from European countries including Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. Visit Florida said the number of international travelers rose 5.5 percent during the third quarter of 2012.

At Englewood Beach a retired judge from the UK, Derek Messenger, was strolling with his wife Carol. They have friends who live in Venice and Naples, so they rent a villa in Rotonda, a community near the beach, for a month.

In addition to giving them profits to hire new workers, hoteliers like Mr. Murnane say the rise in occupancy rates is allowing them to raise their daily rates for the first time since the economy tanked.

In Lee County, the average daily rate hoteliers charge was up 4.1 percent from the prior year to $125.19. Hotels’ occupancy rates rose 2.4 percent to 56.3 percent. In Collier, the average daily rate in October, the latest month available, compared to a year before was up 4.7 percent to $122.10.

“This is the first opportunity for many hotels to gradually raise their rates up to what they might have been in 2008, 2007,” Mr. Murnane said.

And his outlook for the rest of this year is positive.

“For this being Dec. 5 right now, we probably have 30 percent more bookings on today’s date for season than we did a year ago,” he said. ¦

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