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Sarasota Tourism Is Still Going Strong

The latest numbers show that Sarasota County is still a fan favorite, welcoming more international travelers, with more future bright spots in the works.

By Kim Doleatto July 25, 2023

Sarasota County saw notable jumps in international visitors from October through May this year.

Last year was an extraordinary one for Sarasota travel. But according to the latest numbers, 2023 isn’t looking too shabby either.

In year-over-year comparisons for May, many numbers remain strong, according to the latest report from Visit Sarasota County.

Visitors staying in paid accommodations in May last year totaled 142,800 vs. 140,610 in May of this year, with direct expenditures up by 3.6 percent this May.

Hotel occupancy this May was down by roughly 9 percent, dipping to 66 percent compared to last May’s 73 percent. But room rates increased by 5 percent, from $239.32 last May to $251.17 this May, resulting in more tourist development tax (TDT) collections.

Those TDT collections also told the story of a bustling year, jumping by 24 percent this year—from $2,996,418 in May 2022 to $3,706,5293 in May 2023. The increase is due, in part, to the TDT rate  increasing to 6 percent (it was 5 percent in October 2022).

As for longer-range comparisons, the 2023 fiscal year (FY)—that is, October 2022 through May 2023—saw a small increase over the 2022 fiscal year. In FY 2022, there were 996,000 visitors vs. 1,004,510 in FY 2023, with direct expenditures holding strong at $1,271,703,900 in FY 2022, compared to $1,279,177,500 in FY 2023.

But the biggest shifts were seen in who is visiting.

With international borders open and pandemic restrictions lifted, as well as more relaxed behaviors surrounding travel, in-state visitors dropped by 27 percent this fiscal year, from 138,900 to 101,450, now that Floridians can catch up on out-of-state travel. However, snowbirds flocked here, with the number of Canadian visitors jumping by almost 74 percent from last year (from 28,960 in 2022 to 50,230 this year). There were notable visitor increases from the U.K. and central Europe, too, which were up by 35 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Other international visitors increased by 27 percent over last year.

Within the U.S., the highest number of Sarasota seekers for FY 2023 came from New York City, followed by Boston and Tampa-St.Petersburg.

And even though headlines and general attitudes point to a softer economy on the horizon, the future of Sarasota County tourism still looks bright.

“I think we're in good shape to weather a downturn because we have new projects coming on board, not to mention the St. Regis opening next year, because it brings its own following," says Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County. "All of a sudden, their people are going to come here for that. And the room rates are high."

Development of tourism destination projects will also have an impact, Haley adds, like Mote Marine’s new Science Education Aquarium project at Nathan Benderson Park, which broke ground in November 2020 and will feature more than a million gallons of aquarium exhibits throughout its 12-acre property. Haley also points to Selby Garden’s new Living Energy Access Facility, or LEAF—a multipurpose structure that will house a new "garden-to-plate" restaurant, expanded gift and plant shop, and on-site parking, topped by a nearly 50,000-square-foot solar array. The $92 million project also will feature a new welcome center, a cutting-edge plant research center with a state-of-the-art herbarium and research library, and a new multi-use recreational trail (MURT) that will enable multimodal transportation to the campus and the bayfront. 

But Haley also says that next year might be challenging due to the presidential elections—partly because of marketing constraints. “Trying to place advertising leading up to an election doesn't make a lot of sense. Do you want your happy Sarasota ad running between an anti-abortion ad, a 'This guy is a crook ad,' a 'This lady is a monster ad' and a gun ad?” she asks. "People get absorbed [in the politics]. In my years in the business, [election years] are always more challenging. But as a destination, we're in great shape."

A couple of items remain on Haley’s wish list, however: indoor sports facilities and a large meeting space in Sarasota's downtown core. She also highlights the need to reiterate Sarasota's position as an arts and culture hub. "We need to be more aggressive in maintaining that crown we have," she says. "We have strength [with the arts]. I just think we need to remind people about it."

Whatever happens, the recent tourism data puts the county in a safe place. “The county is building up its reserves, which helped with the last recession," she says. "That puts us in a strong financial position to weather a downturn."

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