The most recent tourism numbers demonstrate more than ever the critical importance of focusing on beach health and appropriate parking and lodging facilities for tourism.
Statewide, visitors increased 7% from April through June compared to the same time last year. In Sarasota County, June was up 11% from the previous June, according to the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. On Siesta Key, there are only anecdotal numbers available. The Palm Bay Club on Midnight Pass Road, for instance, has experienced a 20% jump this summer from last summer; others report similar increases.
Siesta Key can be measured by the fact that it collects the most tourist taxes of any region in the county — nearly one-third — edging out the entire city of Sarasota. Nearly $2.85 million was collected on the Key from October through June.
Some of these boosted numbers reflect Siesta Key Public Beach garnering the No. 1 ranking in the nation from Dr. Beach this spring. But the state numbers increased, and tourism in general has bounced back nicely from the valley last year caused by the weak economy and the negative publicity surrounding the Gulf oil spill.
This is a great reminder that tourism and giving tourists the best experience are essential to our economic vitality. There’s nothing like return customers to maintain vibrant business.
All of which brings back to the forefront the ongoing parking issue, both in Siesta Key Village and at Siesta Key beach. It seems folly for Sarasota County to be pursuing an expensive overhaul of the public beach facilities that includes eliminating 100 precious parking spaces. The plan has all sorts of cool elements, then shoots itself in the foot by building an esplanade and taking out parking. Hopes of a trolley eliminating the parking need is truly a fantasy.
The tourism numbers reinforce why all the money and energy distractions on ancillary activities — such as having a sports commission and a film commission — dilute the focus from tourism. If we do tourism with excellence, other good things will follow.
At the same time as the strong tourism numbers are coming in, we are witnessing more problems with short-term rentals where they are not supposed to be — in residentially zoned neighborhoods. The problem suggests that there is insufficient capacity for tourists on the Key. Supply and demand strike again.
One commiserates with the county’s code enforcement officer, John Lally. He must balance the importance of happy tourists with the frustrations of residents ending up with short-term, rowdy tourists rotating through the house next door. His job could be made easier.
Here are some steps Sarasota County and Key leadership should take:
• Parking. Ensure adequate parking for tourists, making this a priority. Siesta Key Village merchants need more visitor parking as well.
• Rentals. Assess whether there is an adequate number of short-term rental rooms on the Key to handle the tourist demand. There is a constant shortage of overnight rentals. If there is a chronic shortfall overall, then county and Key leaders are frustrating both visitors and residents and should find ways to expand short-term capacity on the Key, probably through zoning.
• We’re No. 1! Yes, shout it from the rooftops. Or bridge tops. Take full advantage of the Dr. Beach ranking by enshrining it on the bridges to the Key and perhaps at the new beach pavilion.