Located an hour’s drive away from Orlando and with miles of beautiful, sun-drenched beaches on its doorstep, Tampa Bay makes for a refreshing, peppy pit stop on a Floridian break.
The bay is fast establishing itself as something of a hipster enclave, says Patrick Harrison, Tampa Bay’s chief marketing o cer. “We’re not Miami Beach. There’s a different scene here. Think of us as Portland [Oregon] with sunshine – great craft beer, music and culture.”
The UK is Tampa’s largest source of overseas visitors, and the addition of a Norwegian flight from Gatwick (launched October 31) means more are on the horizon.
Operators including Travel 2 have seen a rise in 2018 visitor numbers, a trend it predicts will continue. Ross Sinclair, senior product manager for the US and Caribbean at Travel 2, says: “Tampa has seen an increase in revenue of 79% year-on-year, with an increased focus on the destination in both the 2018/19 brochure and in our marketing. This has allowed us to support Tampa and drive the growth we are seeing.”
As well as great beaches, Tampa is home to cool restaurants and bars, while a smattering of museums and galleries will keep culture vultures happy. Its proximity to Florida’s lesser-known Panhandle area makes it a good base for budding adventurers too.
Tampa’s Ybor City is worth a visit for its vibrancy and Cuban flair. The city is named after Vicente Martinez- Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur who brought the cigar industry to Florida from Cuba in the late 1800s. Tell clients to spend an evening here, when the bars throng with locals and tourists and nightclubs play music until late.
Downtown hotspot Sparkman Wharf is dotted with waterfront restaurants, located near the Tampa Riverwalk and many of the area’s hotels. A new food hall recently popped up here, the third to open in Tampa Bay in just over a year. Here, street food stalls are fashioned from former shipping containers, plus there’s a beer garden and local bands often rock up to play music.
Families are equally well catered for in Tampa. There’s theme park and animal reserve Busch Gardens Tampa, which is opening Tigris, Florida’s tallest launch coaster, next summer.
Then, for little ones, there’s the Florida Aquarium or ZooTampa at Lowry Park. “They’re great to visit if clients get a rainy day,” says Harrison. The ZooQuarium ticket is new for 2018, which combines both attractions on one ticket and will soon be bookable by agents.
Families visiting in January will be in town for the Gasparilla Pirate Festival (January 26-27), when hundreds of pirates float into the bay, cannons blazing. It celebrates the exploits of mythical Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar who, legend has it, plundered and pillaged south-west Florida’s waters in the 1800s.
The festival kicks off the Gasparilla season, eight weeks of parades and sporting events that are popular with tourists – an average of 30,000 of them flock here at this time of year.
Tampa Bay plans to open around 3,000 new hotel rooms by the end of 2020, with the focus on four- and five-star properties. On the higher end of the scale, a waterfront Autograph boutique will open on the West Shore district next year, while the first Tampa Edition is slated for the end of 2021.
A four-star JW Marriott Hotel and Resort is planned for 2020, featuring 2,500 rooms and Tampa’s highest rooftop bar, while the Seminole Hard Rock and Casino will reopen in the same year with an extra 200 rooms.
Despite the UK being Tampa’s number-one overseas market, Harrison reveals 90% of visitors to the area are domestic. He says Tampa wants to work with agents to change that – in October it launched its first-ever online destination- training module for travel agents and tour operators with OTT, and will also feature as a stop on the upcoming January Florida Huddle pre-fam.