Red tide down, tourism promotion up

Red tide down, tourism promotion up
The TDC voted today to ask Manatee County commissioners to double the funding to staff the tourist information center at Manatee Beach from $15,000 to $30,000 a year. The Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce staffs the center a few days a week. - Cindy Lane / Sun

Updated Feb. 14, 2019 – BRADENTON – Local officials are accelerating tourism promotion efforts to overcome the stigma left by red tide since it appeared in area waters in August 2018.

Red tide was one reason that tourism decreased by .8 percent last year, Walter Klages, of Tampa-based Research Data Services, told the Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) on Monday.

But compared to other Florida destinations, Manatee County is doing well, said Klages, Manatee County’s tourism consultant.Bradenton Anna Maria Island Longboat Key

Tourism’s economic impact on the county approached $1 billion in 2018 – $973,798,800 to be exact, he said.

While red tide has decreased locally in the past month, “The stigma continues to haunt us,” he said, adding that letting people know about the improvement is “an important part of the message we are promoting.”

The last time the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported red tide in area waters was Jan. 11. Respiratory irritation has been reported each week since then; winds can blow red tide to areas where the water is clear.

County accepting TDC applications

Manatee County is now accepting applications for a vacancy on the Tourist Development Council (TDC), a citizens advisory committee that makes recommendations to county commissioners on the expenditures of tourist tax revenues.

The nine-member board is seeking one member who is an owner/operator/general manager of a motel, hotel, recreational vehicle park or other tourist accommodation in the county subject to the 5 percent tourist tax in Manatee County. Eligible applicants also must be registered voters of Manatee County.

Applications are due by July 10 and may be found online.

The TDC meets on the third Monday of every other month at 9 a.m. at various locations throughout Manatee County. The term for the vacant seat expires June 30, 2021.

For more information, call Monica Luff at the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 941-729-9177 ext. 3944  or email her at [email protected]

Another reason for the “contraction” in tourism is that the number of vacation rentals, including hotel and motel rooms, condominiums and homes, has increased, causing a 5.8 percent decline in occupancy, he said.

A slowdown in the growth of the county’s tourism-related social media audience also can be traced to red tide, consultant Kevin McNulty said.

“The entire state had impacts from the red tide,” he said. “Because of red tide we had to pause a lot of advertising.”

“We stepped down for almost two months but we are ramping up hard,” including publicity campaigns in New York and the UK, said Elliott Falcione, director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).

Increased traffic on area roads is a good indication that seasonal tourism is thriving again, Klages said.

TDC Chair Carol Whitmore agreed, saying that one day last week, it took her an hour and a half to get from the Longboat Key bridge in Bradenton Beach to Publix in Holmes Beach.

Airbnb tourist tax collections

Whitmore, also a county commissioner, told TDC members that the commission is considering following the lead of other Florida counties that collect tourist taxes from Airbnb vacation rental owners through the state Department of Revenue (DOR), rather than the county tax collector.

She recounted an online search by a relative that found four such vacation rentals on Anna Maria Island, all sleeping 16 people and charging at least $15,000 a week.

“We are not getting that revenue,” she said, noting that one rental is not even fully constructed yet.

The same problem exists in the 11 tourist destinations that Klages works with, he said.

A Manatee County ordinance requires the tax collector to collect the 5 percent tourist tax from owners of accommodations rented for six months or less who charge the tax to their renters, in most cases, tourists.

With no practical way to identify rental owners using Airbnb to offer rental lodging on websites and mobile apps, Manatee County Tax Collector Ken Burton Jr. sued Airbnb in April 2017 to enforce collections.

Airbnb owners are on the honor system to report and pay their tourist taxes.

Manatee County commissioners unanimously voted on Jan. 29 to investigate working with the DOR to collect tourist taxes from vacation rental owners using Airbnb, rather than wait for the lawsuit to conclude.

In other business:

  • The TDC learned that a concert series at The Center of Anna Maria Island will conclude on April 1 with the Marshall Tucker Band.
  • The council was updated on the eight-story Sheraton hotel that is planned at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto, which will include retail stores and may include a second hotel and an outdoor event area. “This is the most important project we have on the table,” Falcione said, adding that the project is unique from St. Petersburg to Fort Myers.