PALMETTO -- Coming off a record-breaking year for tourism, industry stakeholders are hoping to continue that momentum into summer.
If their enthusiasm Wednesday was any indication, they may be off to a good start.
Nearly 120 tourism executives, local business leaders and elected officials gathered Wednesday at the Manatee Convention Center in Palmetto for the second annual National Tourism Week luncheon sponsored by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
As part of the event, the agency also presented its first champion of tourism awards and announced that five Manatee beaches have joined their counterparts in Sarasota to be certified as clean beaches by the federal Clean Beaches Coalition
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"It's exciting to get into the streets and see in almost all areas, the residents are embracing our tourists," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the tourism bureau. "If we have that Southern charm, they will come back and hopefully bring a business or buy some real estate here. It's one of our life bloods."
A record 85.9 million people visited Florida last year, which was a 4.4 percent increase from 2010, according to the state's tourism agency.
The trend was similar in Manatee, which also broke visitation records in 2011 and is off to a strong start this year.
During the first three months of the year, Manatee saw 170,200 visitors come to the county for a stay, a 10.5 percent jump over the first quarter of 2011, a 12 percent increase from 2010 and 16 percent rise from 2009, according to figures provided by the CVB.
Those vacations led to $165.3 million in direct expenditures, and a total economic impact of $261.1 million, records show.
Tourism officials hope a new emphasis on "green" practices -- the theme of Wednesday's luncheon -- will help build those numbers by attracting visitors from Europe who are generally more conscious of environmental implications.
During the luncheon, a representative from Clean the World gave a briefing on the nonprofit, which re
cycles used guest soap and shampoo from hotels, then sanitizes them to make new products that are donated to the needy.
They keynote speaker was Brad Stombock, the director of sustainable initiatives for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Stombock gave a presentation about his department's green lodging program, which has 33 hotels now enrolled in Southwest Florida, and the green marinas program, which has 14 local participants.
"The way I look at it, waste is bad, whether it's stuff coming out of a pipe or human time," he said. "It means lost profit, simple as that."
Tourism officials announced during the luncheon Wednesday that five local beaches have become certified clean beaches including Manatee Beach, Holmes Beach, Coquina Beach, Anna Maria and Whitney Beach on Longboat.
For the first time, the tourism bureau also handed out three champions of tourism awards to stakeholders who helped promote the industry during the past year.
The tourism partner award was presented to John Horne from Anna Maria Oyster Bar. The tourism catalyst award was given to Vernon DeSear, vice president of marketing at Manatee Memorial Hospital and Tourism Development Council member.
The tourism outreach award went to Pine Avenue Restoration LLC, a group led by Ed Chiles, among others.
"It's been a labor of love for us because we live here," Chiles said. "We wanted to do a project that reflects the nature and low-rise character of paradise, which is Anna Maria Island."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.