Tourism experts still hopeful, despite crushing blow of pandemic

Following a record-breaking year in 2019 for Hillsborough County’s tourism industry, 2020 was set to shatter last year’s numbers until the pandemic, according to Visit Tampa Bay.

Visitors pumped nearly $7 billion into Hillsborough County’s economy last year, supporting 55,000 jobs, according to Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

“It just illustrates how incredibly important this industry is and how many local lives it touches,” said Corrada.

On Tuesday, Corrada told FOX 13 he's impressed by the result of an economic impact study, which shows 2020 was on pace to be even better before the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the industry.

Just as things were starting to look up as Florida reopened, the summer surge in coronavirus cases had the opposite effect.

“That big uptick really hurt us because we were starting to see some momentum in late May, early June, and then we had the setback,” said Corrada.

Revenue is down 50% and hotel occupancy is sitting around 40%, when it’s usually in the 70s this time of year, Corrada explained. But not everything is a loss.

“About 75% of the groups and conventions that were impacted by the pandemic have rebooked with us,” said Corrada. “So that’s a very good thing.”

As restaurants, attractions, and hotels navigate a new normal, tourism leaders are appealing to visitors who are ready to travel now and travel safely.

“With the pandemic the way it is, I think that if things had calmed down, we would probably be somewhere close to normal late next year. But right now we have to see how the pandemic does,” said Corrada.

Visit Tampa Bay said visitors are critical to the local economy, so they are ramping up marketing this month by pushing Florida’s outdoor spaces and recreation.