The Bradenton area caught the wave of a statewide tourism boom with more than 3.1 million visitors in 2017, up 2 percent from 2016.
Tourism, the most powerful engine of Manatee County's economy, had a $1.2 billion impact in 2017, an increase of 5.5 percent from the previous year.
The growing number of visitors also helped produce a boom in tourism-related jobs, which increased 5.1 percent to 26,600.
Ensuring that enough workers are available in the future to serve visitors is a concern, Elliott Falcione, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said during a press conference on Thursday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
The 2017 figures marked the seventh consecutive year of increasing tourism numbers, Falcione said.
Because countywide tourism generates $52.3 million in taxes, the average Manatee County household saves $365 a year in taxes — a 3.1 percent increase over 2016, he said.
Going into 2018, there has been no let up in the number of visitors coming to the Bradenton area.
During the first quarter of 2018, the area attracted 233,400 visitors, compared to 222,500 during the same time last year.
Not even the prospect of rising gasoline prices is likely to slow the tide of tourism. The price of gas would have to exceed $5 a gallon to affect tourism, and no one is predicting such a large spike in prices, Falcione said.
Among factors contributing to the most-recent batch of statistics are diversification and growth in accommodations and a focus on the arts and sports.
Sporting events generated 95,700 overnight visitors, an increase of 12.3 percent from 2016.
Sports accounts for 13.3 percent of the area's overall overnight lodging visitors.
Despite a declining occupancy rate due to a growing number of hotels, room rates were strong at an average of $203.20 per night.
“Bradenton area tourism has again generated an economic impact in the billions and is up nearly 40 percent since 2013. We're also proud to see 94 percent of visitors in 2017 reporting they plan to return and have our great industry members and residents to thank for that," bureau communications director Kelly Clark said.
The bureau will continue to focus on the "right visitor" with the highest daily spending. That visitor typically will come from a household with about $130,000 in annual income, Falcione said.
Also coveted are visitors from the United Kingdom and Central Europe, who spend more per day and stay longer than any other visitor, he said.
He applauded the addition of Allegiant Airlines at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, which recently began direct flights between SRQ and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.
High on Falcione's wish list is a direct air link between Dallas-Fort Worth and SRQ. Those visitors typically go to California but are beginning to discover Florida.