Hurricane fallout for Palm Beach County: more tourists

Palm Beach County has seen its tourism tax collections soar in the four months since hurricanes tore through the Florida Keys and the Caribbean.

The September storms caused widespread damage in the middle Keys, Puerto Rico and other tropical vacation spots, leaving hoteliers with fewer rooms to rent out. As business owners continue to deal with the damage, some tourists have decided to look for new places to visit during the winter travel season.

That shift, coupled with several large events at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, has kept local hotel rooms full and sent tourism tax collections climbing, county tourism leaders said.

“There are still a lot of places that are not inhabitable, and they aren’t a destination,” said Rick Netzel, director of sales and marketing at the Best Western Palm Beach Lakes Inn. “So, people came here.”

Since October, the county has collected $15.5 million in tourism tax revenue, a 15.5 percent increase over the same four-month period the previous budget year.

“Certainly, there are a lot of things affecting that number,” said Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the county’s Tourist Development Council, which monitors tourism tax collections and spending. “As the Keys recover and Puerto Rico recovers, we could see some changes in that, but right now we will take it.”

The tourism tax, also known as a bed tax, is a 6 percent tax levied on all hotel and motel stays and short-term vacation rentals. It generated roughly $48 million last budget year. That money is used to pay for tourism-related advertising, beach renourishment and facilities such as Roger Dean Stadium and the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

In January alone, the county took in $5.7 million in tourism taxes, a 17.5 percent jump from the previous year.

The tourism council had projected a 4 percent jump in bed tax collections for the budget year that began Oct. 1. Tourism leaders recently increased their forecast to 7 percent, citing the surge in revenue.

At the Best Western on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, Netzel said the average price of a nightly booking also is up. In January, the hotel charged an average of $129 a night to stay in one of its rooms, up from $115 a year ago, he said.

The hotel also was busy during the first two weeks of January, which is historically a slow time for the county’s tourism industry as shoppers recover from the holidays and travelers return to work. The hotel’s occupancy stood at more than 80 percent during the first two weeks of the year, Netzel said.

Cold weather in the northern part of the country also has helped keep hotel rooms full, Netzel said.

“We are getting a lot of requests for extended stays,” Netzel said.

Countywide, hotel occupancy hit 76 percent in December, up 5.8 percent over the previous year, according to the tourist council.

Tourism is Florida’s largest industry, accounting for roughly 1.4 million jobs.

More than 112 million out-of-towners traveled to the state in 2016, spending $108.8 billion during their stays here, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization.

In Palm Beach County, the industry employs roughly 66,000 and contributes more than $7 billion to the local economy.

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