Manatee County's already booming tourism trade poised for more growth

Hot. Like the mercury, the tourism trade is rising. The vacation industry has exploded across Florida with county after county reporting record visitation and revenues. Manatee County is faring exceptionally well, and several developments ensure continued big numbers. We've long touted some of the key players in Manatee's economy, but now things are progressing even more.

Last week's second annual National Tourism Week celebration in Palmetto highlighted the stellar year that Manatee County enjoyed -- along with the entire state. Shattering visitation records last year, Manatee is already on pace to set another high mark with a 10.5 percent increase in visitors for the first three months of this year compared with 2011.

Some 170,000 people visited our fair county in just those three months, pumping $165.3 million in direct expenditures into the local economy with a total impact of $261 million.

Our tourism industry not only keeps people employed, it contributes mightily to our tax base.

Overall, Florida attracted almost 86 million people last year, a 4.4 percent boost from the previous year. Manatee County more than doubled that percentage increase, a sure sign that of the region's surging popularity that should continue on an uphill trajectory based on these new reports:

n Finally. With the Manatee County Commission signing off on a parking deal, the owners of the former Manatee River Hotel announced the renovation of the downtown Bradenton landmark will begin this summer.

After last week's commission vote, the Widewaters Bradenton LLC representative stated he was "thrilled." That sentiment could have been echoed by thousands in the community. Yes, in a word, finally.

The new Hampton Inn & Suites Hotel is forecast to contribute a $2.5 million annual economic impact on the area. Those guests will be able to enjoy Bradenton's new Riverwalk attraction, set for a debut this fall.

That Manatee River park is expected to draw 100,000 people a year with its various amenities, with fishing and day docks, skate park, volleyball court and gardens.

n Like soccer? IMG Academies announced last week that the Bradenton sports empire will host bigtime United Soccer Leagues tournaments over the next three years, bringing thousands of players, family and others to the area.

One of those is coming right up, July 19-22, the Super-20 League North American Finals. That will soon be followed by the Super-Y League North American Finals in December, which is expected to attract 15,000 people filling more than 7,000 hotel rooms in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The Super-Y youth soccer league is geared to 12- to 17-year-old players hoping for professional careers in the sport while the Super-20 league contains "elders" ages 17 to 20.

IMG brings in world-class athletes and events year-round, and these soccer tournaments are more icing on an already big economic cake.

n The World Aquatic Center at Nathan Benderson Park hosted its biggest event yet this past weekend, the Southeast Youth Championship Regatta. The U.S. Rowing Association sanctioned event drew 40 high school teams from seven states and more than 10,000 spectators.

Rowing looks like the new soccer.

The region's tourism industry is rebounding quite nicely from the recession, thanks to both private and public sector initiatives.

We hope that boosts other components of the economy as people visit and decide this is indeed a place to do business and live on a permanent vacation.