MANATEE -- Tourism officials are keeping a close eye on prices at the pump.
Recent declines in gas prices have inflated summer travel expectations in Florida. Summer is the time when locals and Floridians drive and vacation here from other parts of the state.
And the timing couldn't be better.
Coming off four months of visitation figures that flirted with record highs, a slew of restaurants and hoteliers now hope some sustained momentum this summer will help lift business through the industry's slowest season.
The Manatee area reported 214,800 visitors this year to date, a 10 percent increase from the same time in 2011. Those trips led to $193.7 million in direct expenditures and $306 million in total economic impact, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
The positive pace continued in April, when 44,600 visitors came to Manatee -- 8.3 percent more than the year before -- pushing similar increases in hotel occupancy and room rates, records show.
"We find people want to stay closer to home now," said David Teitelbaum, president of Anna Maria Island Resorts. "In the past three years, they were taking trips to Mexico and the Caribbean, which
have proven to be more expensive. We're convenient, and they can get away without all of the hassle."
Today is the official start of summer and those making trips at this time of year are within a three-hour drive unlike the peak winter season, which is bolstered with Europeans and visitors from northern states.
"We're in our drive season and gas prices are coming down, so we're excited about it," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "There's still pent-up demand in Florida. The summer season should be strong."
A recent AAA Consumer Pulse survey shows about two-thirds of Florida residents plan to take a summer vacation of four days or more between May and September, an 8 percent jump from last summer. About half plan to spend less than $1,000.
That projection has been accelerated by falling gas prices, which slipped to $3.27 a gallon in Bradenton on Tuesday, down from $3.31 a week ago, $3.55 a month ago and from $3.98 during the year's peak April 6, according to AAA.
In fact, the agency's latest report shows more than 42.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more during the Independence Day holiday weekend, a 4.9 percent increase from last year.
If that holds true, it will match the decade-high set in 2007 and represent a 42 percent increase from 2009, which had the least amount of travelers.
"The summer holidays always tend to be heavy on auto travel," AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said. "And the waning gas prices are helping."
Those improving travel forecasts benefit more than just hotels and restaurants.
Boosts to travel in recent months has pushed tourist development taxes to their highest levels since the levy was increased in June 2009. Tourist development taxes, or bed taxes, are a county fee placed on all short-term room stays.
The $5.39 million in tourist development taxes collected through the current fiscal year, which began in September, are up 16.5 percent over 2010-2011 and 20 percent from 2009-2010, according to the tax collector.
Those gains have helped the county build a reserve, which it plans to use on opportunities that can further increase local tourism, like the $250,000 matching grant the Tourist Development Council OK'd on Monday to help complete the Manatee Players' new downtown theater. No other additional spending has been approved, officials said.
Now stakeholders are simply hoping a strong summer will build on that progress.
"In general, people are tired of scrimping around and they feel they're ready for a vacation," said Barbara Rodocker, managing partner of BridgeWalk and owner of Silver Surf Resort. "They're getting a little more confident."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.