Businesses in John's Pass looking forward to busy year as tourism industry booms

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Posted at 7:17 PM, Apr 27, 2021

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — You can’t talk tourism in the Tampa Bay area without talking about one of the top tourist attractions in Pinellas County and in Florida, John’s Pass.

It’s located within walking distance of one of the top 10 beaches in America, Madeira Beach, and it’s got something for everybody.

You can head out on a fishing or dolphin tour, all while visiting the shops and restaurants that line John’s Pass Village.

After the pandemic shut businesses down last spring break, this spring break is setting them up for one of the best years yet.

Let’s start at the west end, just below the John’s Pass Bridge, at Hubbard’s Marina. Hubbard’s Marina started in 1928, and they offer dolphin cruises and fishing trips. This business is arguably the major attraction in John’s Pass.

But like everybody else, they closed their doors last year.

“This closure was the longest amount of time that our family business has been closed in nearly 100 years. Even WWII, even the oil spills, the red tides, the hurricanes, we were closed for periods of time, but we were never closed as long as we were closed for COVID, which was a little more than 40 days,” said Capt. Dylan Hubbard, Owner of Hubbard’s Marina.

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The entire spring break season is the busiest time of the year. Businesses in John’s Pass Village rely on this revenue to keep them going during the slow times.

“It was a tough reality, it was very stressful at first, but we hung together,” said Hubbard.

They reopened with limited capacity in May but were unsure if anyone was even interested in visiting, but people came.

“June through December we broke records every month with passenger counts, and number of people coming into town, and we were still limiting the loads on the boats,” said Hubbard.

A majority of the visitors last year were locals. People coming for day trips and staycations, and not your typical out-of-state traffic. It was a welcome site for businesses in John’s Pass that were trying to recoup some of what they lost.

“We had a lot of inland Floridians coming out to the beaches, which made a lot of sense. A lot of the other states were shut down, not a lot of travelers from out of state, so Floridians took advantage of that opportunity to come down to the beach and not be inundated with tourists.” Said Dustin O’Neal, Owner of Sunshine Scenic Tours.

Dustin and his wife own Sunshine Scenic Tours, offering the Dolphin Quest and pirate cruises.

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“There’s many boats, dolphin watching tours in the area, we take it a step further, we actually provide an eco-educational tour, so when we take you out on the water, we’re going to teach you about the dolphins about the area, about the history, about the plants, about the other animals, the birds, the fish, all the wildlife,” said O’Neal.

They also have a resident dolphin expert who offers wildlife education for all of their visitors while on the boat.

Dustin and his wife bought the business back in June 2019, just after that year’s busy spring break season.

“Everybody that operates a business here knows that’s when we really make our money for the year, pretty much for the whole year, and then we were looking forward to Spring Break 2020, and unfortunately we were shut down for 6 weeks,” said O’Neal.

So this year, as more people flock to Florida, they’re more confident than ever that they’re going to make it.

“We’re on track to have a record year, without a doubt,” said O’Neal.

Hotels are booked solid, and although the tourist season came a little later than normal, businesses are on track for a great year.

“Here we are in 2021, and we’re having the best spring break that many of these businesses have seen in decades,” said O’Neal.

Things are picking up on the opposite side of the pass, too. A building that sat empty after the pandemic closed Gator’s Cafe for good is getting ready to open its doors again, as a new restaurant.

They claim to have the “World’s Longest Waterfront Bar,” and now local St. Pete restaurant management company Beachside Hospitality Group, is getting ready to open their 11th location, Crabby’s on the Pass.

“To say that we didn’t have struggles during 2020 would be foolish to say that, but because we’ve got such an amazing team we were able to sign off on 3 locations in 2020, whereas other restaurants are closing their doors for good, like this location, it was an opportunity for us to come in and really revitalize,” said Julia Cassino, Director of Marketing for Beachside Hospitality Group.

It’s an experience unlike anything else, offering one of the best views in the Tampa Bay area. They’ll have live music, dockside service and seafood with a twist. You can go out and catch your own fish on one of the local fishing tours, then bring it to Crabby’s on the Pass, clean it at their cleaning station and they’ll cook it for you.

“You can expect to see fresh grouper here, you can also expect to see hogfish, we are super proud that we are one of the only locations in the area to carry what’s called barideye crab,” said Cassino.

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Crabby’s on the Pass will open its doors for visitors, whether by boat or by car, in a matter of days. Just one more business, here for the long haul, hoping to help John’s Pass flourish. And they’re coming in at a good time.

“I would say that we are so busy that I don’t think we can actually handle the amount of people. We’re booked solid, four days out, and we have many bookings for all of our cruises a few weeks out, which we haven’t ever seen before since we’ve owned the business,” said O’Neal.

Businesses are on track for one of their best years in history. So as far as the tourism industry in John’s Pass?

“It’s very healthy. You still have those people who are a little leery about coming to a busy place, but I think there’s plenty of people who don’t mind going outside in the open air and enjoying it, and even those who are a little worried about it, they wear their mask and they stay further away from people, and they could still come and enjoy John’s Pass, too,” said Hubbard.

It looks pretty good.

It’s obvious why people are drawn to John’s Pass, and for those of us who live in Florida, we got a good reminder this last year of why it’s so great to call everyone else’s tourist destination home.