A bright future for Manatee County's soaring tourism trade

May 11, 2014 

Manatee County continues a years-long upward trajectory in tourism, setting a new record high for 2013. That's not too surprising considering all the new attractions and events popping up around the county -- with more to come.

The Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau celebrated National Tourism Week on Wednesday by announcing very good economic news. Some 2.8 million visitors came to Manatee County last year, an increase of 1.5 percent over 2012.

That figure translates into an economic impact of $909 million, up 7.6 percent over 2012, with tourism job growth, too.

Those visitors spent $403 million at Manatee hotels and resorts, an increase of 10.6 percent. That revenue is buoyed by the fact that visitors are staying here longer, on average 7.2 nights versus the statewide mark of about four nights.

This is a boon to the county fund dedicated to tourism development, the so-called bed tax paid on resort and vacation home stays of less than six months. By state law, that money can only be spent on that goal.

The county raked in $8.7 million during the 2012-2013, figures from the Manatee County Tax Collector show. This fiscal year looks even more stellar with double-digit percentage increases in resort tax collections every month from October through March over the previous period.

That bed-tax revenue helps fuel our tourism industry. For example, Bradenton Beach is in the midst of repairing its storm-damaged pier and county visitor bed tax revenue will pay up to half the cost, capped at $1 million. That's a wise investment in a popular tourist attraction.

One of the most noteworthy points to come out of last week's CVB gathering came from Elliott Falcione, the organization's executive director: Since the beaches are plenty crowded, the county must focus elsewhere -- developing the Bradenton and Palmetto urban core markets as well as working with Lakewood Ranch.

That's an especially great development for the two cities, whose limited resources would benefit from a boost. Bradenton is heavily invested in Riverwalk, and funding assistance for other key improvement projects -- such as Village of the Arts -- would advance timelines.

What's driving Manatee County rising tourism?

• Ecotourism, agritourism and culinary tourism are all on the rise, especially with Manatee's superior nature preserves attracting hundreds of thousands of hikers, wildlife watchers and fishing fans.

• IMG Academy expansion is bringing more and more athletes, coaches and others from around the world to its Bradenton campus, which is undergoing a $36 million, 100-plus acre project. IMG brought Major League Soccer here this year for its first taste of spring training in Southwest Florida.

• The Da Vinci Machines Exhibition at the Bradenton Auditorium has been attracting hordes since opening in November, so many people, in fact, the show has been extended twice into July. Visitors from around the state are coming.

• The Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a banner spring training with record average attendance of 7,587 fans, about 1,300 higher than last year's previous mark. McKechnie Field's $10 million renovation opened last spring, and the word has spread about this magnificent ballpark.

• The sprawling Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch and Nathan Benderson Park's rowing center have proven to be strong tourism assets and that promised to grow with a strong lineup of sports competitions -- including national and international rowing events.

Those are but a few examples. What's in store for the future?

• The inaugural Bradenton Arts & Movieville Film Festival, a 10-day festival that launched Thursday, promises to be an annual attraction.

• The Manatee River is poised to host a Formula 2 powerboat regatta next February as the city of Bradenton hammers out the final details with organizers.

• The 2014 Modern Pentathlon will be staged here June 4-8, a coup with Manatee and Sarasota counties winning the bid over such luminaries as Rome, Cairo and Budapest.

These, too, are but a sampling of the growth of tourism.

The best news, though, is the tourism industry is no longer dependent on "season," the wintertime months when snowbirds and others flock to warm weather.

David Teitelbaum, who owns four Anna Maria Island beach resorts, sits on the board of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council. He told this Editorial Board that tourism is now more a year-round business -- boosted, too, by locals venturing out to resorts.

And, he said, this year is going "extremely well."

With last year's surge in European visitors, word has spread far and wide that this is indeed paradise.

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