When it comes to tourism and drawing visitors from around the world, Seminole County sits in Orange County’s behemoth shadow.
But Seminole has collected a record amount of tax revenue from hotel room nights and short-term rental stays this year.
It’s an indication that visitors are not only traveling to the famous-name attractions to the south — such Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center — they are also filling hotels in Seminole, county officials said.
“We are seeing historic numbers,” said Gui Cunha, administrator for Seminole’s office of economic development and tourism. “We have never, ever had higher TDT [tourist development tax] revenues.”
In May, the county collected a record $585,892, or 44% more than in May 2021.
In April — traditionally one of the slower months of the year for tourism as families ease from Spring Break celebrations the previous month and prepare for summer travel — Seminole saw a record $563,558 in tourist tax revenues. That’s a nearly 39% increase compared to April 2021.
Last March, the county collected a record $694,754 in tourist tax revenues, a nearly 77% jump from collections in March 2021.
Seminole’s tourist development tax is a 5% charge tacked on to the bill for every night spent in a hotel or a rental stay of six months or less. It’s in addition to the sales tax of 7%.
Revenue from the tourist development tax is used to promote tourism, and build and renovate facilities that bring in visitors, such as the county’s Boombah Sports Complex in Sanford.
Officials said the skyrocketing tourist tax revenues were fueled in large part by the higher rates hoteliers are charging for a night. The average daily room rate for March in Seminole was $117.92; in April it was $110.85; and in May it was $108.56, according to county data. Those rates ranged from 18% to 38% higher than from the same months in 2021, officials said.
Hotel occupancy rates in May in Seminole were reported at a whopping 70%, nearing the 73% record set in May 2017, according to county data. Even so, Seminole today has dozens of more hotel rooms than five years ago, officials noted.
Most of those rooms were filled during weekend nights. In recent years, most visitors to Seminole were business travelers staying during weekday nights.
County leaders say Seminole’s recent marketing and advertising efforts across the Southeast promoting Seminole as Orlando North, and as a place for families to enjoy nature trails, parks and sporting events, helped draw in visitors.
Besides the Boombah Sports Complex, Seminole has the popular Wekiva Springs State Park, the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Wekiva Island and miles of recreational trails.
“It’s really about ecotourism and sports tourism,” Commissioner Lee Constantine said. “Ecotourism has become more and more of a sophisticated tourist destination for families. We have well-recognized trails and parks.”
Constantine added that many visiting families see Seminole as a central point of their Florida vacation.
“We’re in a unique location,” he said. “To the northeast and to the east, we have beautiful beaches. To the south, we have theme parks. To the west, we have more beautiful beaches. It’s all less than two hours away.”
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Cunha said he expects the county will set more records for tourist development tax revenues in June and July as travelers continue to release some of the “pent-up demand” caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020.
But as Orange and Osceola counties have long relied mostly on theme parks and other attractions to draw visitors, Seminole in recent years has turned to sports tourism by creating facilities that would bring national sporting tournaments.
In May 2016, Seminole opened its $27-million Boombah Sports Complex off East Lake Mary Boulevard near the Orlando Sanford International Airport.
Since then, the complex has hosted nearly 300 events and brought more than 600,000 visitors to Seminole. That includes 43 tournaments and 83,000 visitors last fiscal year.
Commission Chairman Bob Dallari said Seminole’s investments in expanding recreational trails and natural lands — in addition to sports tourism — are paying off by attracting visitors.
“We know we can’t compete with Disney and the other attractions,” Dallari said. “But we don’t want to be like them. Seminole County is Florida’s natural choice. That’s our sweet spot.”