- Jennifer Sorentrue Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A record-breaking 7.9 million tourists traveled to Palm Beach County last year, a milestone that shattered 2016’s all-time high and marked the ninth consecutive year of growth for the local tourism industry.
A surge in travelers from within the United States helped break the previous record set in 2016, when 7.35 million tourists came here, according to Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing organization.
The county saw a 7.9 percent increase in domestic travelers in 2017, a jump buoyed largely by an uptick in visitors from New York, Washington, D.C., and other parts of Florida. Tourism officials partially attributed the increase in D.C.-area tourists to the opening of The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, the spring training complex for the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros.
Roughly 745,000 international travelers came to the county in 2017, an increase of less than 1 percent, according to Discover.
In all, the county’s hotels had 4.6 million nightly bookings in 2017, a 4.9 percent increase over the previous year.
The number of tourists is nearly double the level recorded in 2009.
“Tourism … creates and protects thousands of jobs, and drives growth for all economic sectors of Palm Beach County,” said Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and chief executive. “Our top goal is to harness and continue to build this momentum, as we paint the picture of the Palm Beaches as a bucket-list destination.”
Local hoteliers say 2018 already is shaping up to be another strong season for the industry. The 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 in those area with fewer rooms to rent out. That helped drive visitors to Palm Beach County, officials said.
“We saw a big influx to top off 2017,” said Roger Amidon, the general manager at the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa and a member of the county’s Tourist Development Council.
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. The county charges a 6 percent “bed tax” on stays at hotels, motels and other lodging. It brings in nearly $50 million a year.
In January alone, the county took in $5.7 million in tourism taxes, a 17.5 percent jump from the previous year.
Cold weather in the northern part of the country also has helped keep hotel rooms full, Amidon said.
“If there is cold weather right around Halloween that is going to be an indicator of how it is going to shape up,” Amidon said.
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.
Gov. Rick Scott is expected to travel to Juno Beach on Thursday to announce the statewide tourist tally for 2017.
In Palm Beach County, the industry employs roughly 70,000 and contributes more than $7 billion to the local economy.
Over the past nine years, the number of tourists traveling to Palm Beach County has grown by 91 percent — up from 4.1 million in 2009, the first year of the surge. Local tourism leaders say the growth in visits, combined with new cultural attractions and efforts to market the area as a vacation destination, has resulted in more hotel construction here.
There are roughly 17,000 hotel rooms in the county, up from about 15,800 in 2014, Discover has said.