Tourism numbers dip, but Siesta businesses hold steady

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Tracking tourism has been tricky in recent years. From the COVID-19 travel stoppage to the post-pandemic surge, our visitor numbers have swung wildly to reflect the unprecedented times we’ve been living through. 

On the one hand, it’s nice to see things getting back to normal. On the other, “normal” means watching our visitation numbers dip for more mundane reasons, like a slower economy. That’s what seems to have happened during our 2023-2024 tourist season. 

“I think a lot of it has to do with the economy,” said Taylor Eason of Parasail Siesta. “It seems a lot of travelers decided to skip the trip and save the extra [money] this year.”

Still, the slowdown was relatively minor, and Siesta Key remains among the shiniest gemstones in Sarasota’s many-splendored tourism crown. After surviving and adapting during the strange days of COVID-19, many Siesta Key businesses remain relatively unfazed by the most recent economic hiccup. 

Visit Sarasota County, the region’s tourism marketing entity and visitor information service, recorded a slight decrease in visitor numbers and overall economic impact in the first six months of the 2024 fiscal year (October 2023 through March 2024), compared to the same period last season. Last year’s first six months saw 727,100 visitors to Sarasota County, for a total economic impact of roughly $1.56 billion; the same period this year saw 657,200 visitors for more than $1.53 billion.

Those figures represent a 10% season-to-season visitor drop-off, but only a 1.5% reduction in economic impact.

Those countywide margins are small enough that not everyone on Siesta Key even noticed a slowdown.

“Season for us at Clayton’s Siesta Grille has been great!” said Jacob Butler, the restaurant’s general manager. “We saw about the same number of guests as last year in January and February. In March we saw an 8% increase in our guest count compared to last year.”

First-time diners, he added, accounted for more than half of their business.

For other tourism-based businesses, the slowdown was small enough to be overcome with adaptation. 

“We were unfortunately slower this winter and spring compared to previous years,” said Eason. “However, we added a new tiki boat to our business that brought in great revenue and helped us to maintain the same numbers in previous years.”

In fact, shifting tourist activities will always be something for Siesta Key leaders to keep their eyes on. Even as our overall numbers dipped, the Siesta Key Chapel has developed a “robust following” for its Sunday services on the beach, according to Pastor Ruth Smalt. Those attendance numbers culminated in a whopping 650 worshippers at the chapel’s 2024 Easter service on the beach — a huge jump from 260 attendees last year.

And though we traditionally consider our local tourist season to run from Thanksgiving through Easter, tourism is now a boon year-round. After the 2023 season hit $1.5 billion, last year’s total 12-month economic impact from tourism reached almost $4.3 billion — that means visitors accounted for another $2.7 billion during the region’s “off season.”

Siesta Key businesses still have the whole summer to make up their margins.

“Peak season was the slowest I can remember besides COVID,” said David Warren, co-owner of Siesta Sun Villas. “We had to run last-minute specials at reduced rates to keep busy. I put it down to the increased cost of living.”

Hannah Wallace
Author: Hannah Wallace

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