NAPLES — Tourism heated up in March.
As winter slipped away, Collier County saw a record number of visitors staying in hotels and other vacation rentals in March.
The county attracted 213,200 visitors, up 5 percent from 203,000 in March 2011, according to a monthly report by Tampa-based Research Data Services Inc., a county consultant.
The increase in tourism was driven by an uptick in visitors from the Midwestern U.S. and from international markets, most notably the United Kingdom and Germany.
Visitation from Canada rose 40 percent in March to 5,117 year-over-year. While it's a small market, it's significant, said Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services, in presenting his report to the county's Tourist Development Council on Monday.
"Is it significant? You bet. It's a building market for us and it's a market we kind of need to be looking at," he said.
From Europe, visitation to the county grew more than 47 percent in March to 24,518, up from 16,646 a year ago, which Klages described as an "exceptional performance."
It's a market, he said, the county has courted and worked to expand — and it should continue to do so.
Clark Hill, a member of the Tourist Development Council and the general manager of Hilton Naples, asked whether Klages expected the European market to stay strong in the offseason, which traditionally begins after Easter. Klages said he expected that it would.
Jack Wert, the county's tourism director, said European tour operators, who handle much of the visitation to the U.S., are reporting a double-digit increase in advance summer bookings from a year ago.
He said the Swiss market is one he's keeping an eye on. The Swiss are avid travelers and Wert said Swiss tour operators he's recently talked to at international trade shows say they're "booked solid" for the summer. Direct flights from Germany into Southwest Florida International Airport make it easier to bring in visitors from Switzerland.
Hill asked about efforts to bring direct flights into the Fort Myers airport from Brazil. But, so far, they haven't gained any momentum, Wert said.
"At this point, it's Miami, Miami, Miami," he said. "That's really all they can think of."
Wert said he's looking at the possibility of having a part-time representative in Brazil to market Collier County and build awareness of the destination.
Hill noted that 40 percent of the tourist dollars spent in Miami and Orlando are coming from Brazil and South America. Collier County wants to capture some of those dollars.
Tourism spending continues to grow in the county. It reached $156.1 million in March, up 12 percent from a year ago, according to Research Data Services.
In March, the average occupancy rate at hotels and other vacation rentals hit 92.2 percent in Collier, up from 89.1 percent last year.
Meanwhile, the average daily rate grew to more than $260, up about 8 percent from nearly $241 a year ago.
From January to March, the county attracted 551,500 visitors, up 7.8 percent from the same months a year ago. In the quarter, spending rose 12.9 percent to nearly $538 million.
So far this year, the county has seen 117,356 visitors from the Midwest, up nearly 12 percent from the same time last year. In March, 47,757 visitors came from that market alone — 7.4 percent more than last year.
A report by Smith Travel Research Inc., a market research company headquartered in Tennessee, shows occupancy slipping by 2.6 percent in the Naples area in March, but it doesn't track a key part of the market: condominiums used as vacation rentals, Klages said.
While condominiums are an important part of the market, Medwedeff said they don't account for most of the tourist tax dollars collected in the county. Some owners still aren't paying the tax, though the situation has improved.
When it comes to the skyline of tax collections, Klages said there is clearly a gap.
The Smith Travel report showed that group business at the major hotels it tracks fell 10.4 percent in March. Yet Medwedeff said that's not a trend.
Collier County continues to attract more visitors from so-called "opportunity markets," primarily markets west of the Mississippi River where it doesn't advertise. In March, visitation from those markets rose 7.8 percent, which Klages described as a "very positive performance."
Visitation from other parts of Florida fell 2.6 percent in March, but that's to be expected in season when the rates are so much higher, Klages said.
"It's very expensive. It's not a cheap destination at this time of the year," he said.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden