Aerial shot of the beach

Locals usually look forward to sleepy summer months for easy parking and drop-in dining, but this summer proved to be different.

The summer months, typically known as  “down season” in the local service industry, belied the term this year.

“We broke all records. Especially in July and August. Despite the red tide, we had the best August ever compared to any other August in terms of leisure travel,” says Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.

Sarasota County June visitation was up by roughly 34 percent, and spending was up by 44 percent compared to June of 2019.

Some July numbers that stood out this year compared to 2019 included an 83 percent increase in tax development dollars, an almost 40 percent increase in visitation, and 70 percent increase in expenditures, taking them from $88,403,100 to $150,591,500.

In August, there was a 38.3 percent increase in the number of visitors compared to the same month in 2019, and an almost 80 percent increase in visitor expenditures.

And increased room rates were no bogeyman. They grew from an average of roughly $130 a night in 2019 to $176—a 35 percent increase.

“I think because we're a beach destination, there's still the feeling of enjoying outdoor dining, beaches and parks while staying relatively safe,” Haley says.

So where did travelers come from?

From April to June, the top three origins markets were Florida, followed by the Southeast and Northeast after that. (A ban on international visitation due to Covid meant only 1.6 percent of visitors came from areas outside of the U.S.)

The top three tourist go-tos were St. Armands Circle, followed by the Venice Pier and Mote Marine. It’s no surprise that activity-wise, most visitors spent time at the beach (86 percent) and dined out at restaurants (65 percent).

The Sarasota County tourist development tax (TDT) collections also told the story of a bustling summer season. The TDT is a 5 percent tax applied to lodging stays of fewer than six months. That revenue is used to fund things like beach maintenance, sports stadiums and tourism promotions.

Compared to June 2019, TDT almost doubled. In 2019, it was $1,832,293.39, and this June it was $3,232,053.93, an increase of 57 percent.

July was also strong, and August, though more modest, still showed gains over pre-pandemic numbers. Altogether, June, July and August accounted for a total of $3.5 million more in TDT collection this year over the same months in pre-pandemic 2019.

In Manatee County, summer numbers told a similar story. Visitors came from the same places as those who visited Sarasota County, and the county took in almost double the TDT taxes it did in 2019. The total increase in June through August TDT dollars in Manatee County was more than $3 million.

Occupancy was strong, too. From June through August, upwards of 70,000 more visitors braved the summer swelter this year than did in 2019.

“Of short term rental accommodations, just 15 percent of them were hotels and motels. When people came, they had a kitchen in their unit, so it was easy to stay in if they feared eating out in crowded places,” says Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Falcione credits a record-breaking year for Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. “We’re blessed to have the fastest growing international airport in the world. Those added flights have helped us rebuild our Midwest influx,” he says. Plus, domestic travelers had to stay just that–domestic.

He also pointed to Florida's "open" status during the pandemic. “We showcased we’re not as congested as other beachy places. Then add to that the diversification of our assets thanks to a strong sports segment of tourism with IMG Academy in our backyard,” he says.

The rest of the year looks just as strong. “The bookings are very strong for Christmas and the holidays already," Visit Sarasota's Haley says. "A lot of people who were here last year have already booked for 2022."

And Nov. 8, 2021, may herald a new wave of pent-up tourism. The U.S. pandemic travel ban will be lifted as fully vaccinated international travelers will be allowed to enter the country almost two years after the first ban was imposed in January 2020.

“With that, I'm expecting an unprecedented demand through Easter and then a shift from strong domestic travel to strong international travel next summer," Falcione says. "The domestic visitors who normally go to Europe didn't this summer, and there will probably be a flip."