A record month for tourism in Brevard County during spring break is likely to bode well for the rest of the spring and summer.
And that would mean good things for local businesses and the local job market, since tourism is a key economic driver for the region. Tourism is a $2.1 billion-a-year industry in Brevard County that is responsible for more than 26,000 jobs.
Hotels, restaurants, retailers, and popular attractions like the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the Brevard Zoo all benefit from more visitors coming to the county.
Just-released data on the collection of Brevard County’s Tourist Development Tax — a widely followed economic indicator for the tourism industry — shows that collections for the first time ever topped $2 million for a single month.
In March, Brevard County’s 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals generated $2.10 million. That’s a more than 6 percent increase from the $1.97 million the tax generated in March 2018, which was the previous single-month record.
The numbers are even more impressive, considering the March 2018 numbers included part of Easter weekend, since Easter was April 1 that year. In contrast, the March 2019 numbers did not include the Easter period, since Easter was April 21 this year.
“Across the tourism sector, there has been good performance” this spring, Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis said. “I think we have some good months ahead of us.”
Brevard County Tourist Development Council Vice Chair Laurilee Thompson, who is co-owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville, describes the numbers as “fantastic.”
“I think the future is good for us,” Thompson said, in discussing the outlook for tourism.
Tourism trends are important for her restaurant, which generates as much as two-thirds of its monthly sales from people who live more than a 1½-hour drive away.
Cranis said he and others in the tourism industry had been anxiously awaiting the March numbers, which are released about five weeks after the month ends.
March is “a really critical month for tourism” in Florida, because it encompasses much of the high school and college spring break period, Cranis said. March historically is the busiest month of the year for local hotels, and often is a bellwether for the rest of the year.
While April data won’t be out until early June, Cranis said local hoteliers have indicated that April was strong for tourism, and May is shaping up the same way.
Separate data from STR Inc., which tracks the hotel industry, found that the hotel room occupancy level in the first three months of 2019 was 74.8% in Brevard County, including 84.8% in March. The average hotel room rate was $126.36, including $138.44 in March.
Among the visitors to the area this week is Lisa Kelly of Saginaw, Michigan, who was spending Thursday at Brevard Zoo with family members.
“We think there’s a lot of nice things in the area, especially the zoo,” Kelly said. “We’ve already been to the beaches, and were going paddleboarding tomorrow.”
Another plus of the Space Coast, said Ashton Lindberg of Atlanta, is that “we think everyone is super-friendly.”
Lindberg was at the zoo Thursday with her husband, Steve, and their 21-month-old daughter, Belle, and they were finding that the giraffes are friendly, too, especially when zoo visitors are feeding them.
Thompson said she believes a number of factors helped contributed to the high visitor volume in recent months. They include a strong economy; renewed interest in the space program; strong cruise business at Port Canaveral, which helps generate overnight visitors who stay in the area before or after their cruises; and marketing efforts by the Office of Tourism to draw more people to the area.
Thompson said the presence of both Kennedy Space Center and Port Canaveral in Brevard County “makes us a unique destination.”
Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said the port is well-positioned as the world’s second-busiest cruise port.
“The cruise industry is booming, with record growth for the first quarter of 2019,” Murray said. ” ‘Wave Season’ — traditionally the first three months of the year — has been strong, and bookings remain at record levels. The Caribbean remains the No. 1 destination for cruises, and Port Canaveral has benefited from this growth, based on the trust and confidence we’ve earned over time with our cruise partners.”
Cruise lines are basing larger and newer ships at Port Canaveral, an indication that they believe the Space Coast is a profitable market for their industry.
On Monday, for example, Royal Caribbean deployed the second-largest cruise ship in the world, the Harmony of the Seas, to Port Canaveral. That ship has a capacity of 7,029 passengers, plus a crew of 2,175.
Additionally, Murray noted that Royal Caribbean also moved Mariner of the Seas to Port Canaveral on Monday, making that ship “one of the largest ships to sail in the lucrative three- and four-day cruise market,” sailing from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas.
Ron Jon Surf Shop Marketing Director Heather Lewis said her company’s flagship Cocoa Beach store is having a strong spring, and that’s an indication of strong tourism in general.
“We’re definitely a destination for visitors to the county,” said Lewis, noting that 70 percent of the store’s customers are from outside Florida.
Lewis said you also can see how busy things are when you step outside Ron Jon and check out the heavy traffic on State Road A1A.
Because of the traffic congestion, Lewis said, “you have to plan ahead if you want to go out for lunch in Cocoa Beach.”
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.