Florida tourism is skyrocketing

Tarpon Springs is trying to lure more tourists
Posted at 7:12 PM, May 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-15 19:12:36-04

Florida is hitting the tourism jackpot! 31.1 million people visited FL from Jan-March alone. That's a 2.5 percent leap from last year, according to numbers released by state tourism leaders Monday. 

Overall, 113 million tourists came to FL in 2016. We know people flock here to our beaches, but Tarpon Springs is one area that is trying really hard to reel in more tourists this summer. 

“Ladies and gentlemen…” George Billiris shouted out into the streets of Tarpon Springs near the sponge docks, “Would anybody like to join us for our next trip?”

Billiris has learned the value of barking. The more he yells, the more tickets he sells. “Get your tickets here please!,” he belted out into the crowd of people passing by. 

He's got a lot to live up to. His great grandpa started the St Nicholas Boat Line sponge boat tour for nearly 100 years. Back then, there weren’t quite as many boats. 

“Times are tough and there’s a lot of competition for the dollar,” Billiris explained.

Everywhere you look in Tarpon Springs, there are things to buy, trips to take and food to taste. Businesses in the sponge docks aren’t just competing with each other, but more well known areas. 

David Gauchman heads up the Tarpon Springs Business Association and owns 3 local stores, “Years ago there wasn’t a lot to do in Clearwater Beach and after 2-3 days, people’s skin was burnt and they’d come here. Now there is a lot more to do in Clearwater Beach and St Pete Beach. Our businesses stay busy, but we could always use more customers.”

The more other towns build up, the tougher Tarpon Springs has to fight to bring people to town. Soon competition could get even more fierce.

State leaders recently voted to cut $57 million bucks from the state’s marketing budget. That slices the money for Visit Florida from $82 million to $25 million. It's money used in part to advertise unique areas like Tarpon Springs.

David Downing, the CEO of Visit St Pete Clearwater worries state cuts could hurt Tampa Bay. “If you put 2/3 less gasoline in the engine, it’s not going to go as far," he explained. Downing says consistent marketing is what keeps visitors coming back. "Just think about Coke. They're universally known and yet, they still spend lots of money on advertising. It's important to stay top of mind, even when you've become a top destination in the country."

Tourism employs 100,000 people in Pinellas County alone.

Back in Tarpon Springs, Billiris and his competitors are joining forces to put together special events to remind Florida’s 113 million tourists about their slice of paradise and what makes it unbeatable.

Rick Sutton of Odyssey Cruises in Tarpon Springs explains, “It’s like old, old Florida. If you want the nice laid back experience, you’ll come here.”

Across the county, Pinellas tourism is doing exceptionally well. The number of tourists coming here has increased year-over-year every month for the past 5 1/2 years.