The Canadians are coming – and so are the Europeans.
They're the ones who drove most of the increase in visitation that Collier County saw last month.
The county saw 9,168 visitors from Canada in February, up 66.5 percent from a year ago when there were 5,505, according a monthly report by Tampa-based Research Data Services Inc.
Meanwhile, another 22,743 tourists came from Europe last month, up more than 36 percent from the 16,676 who came in the same month last year.
The Naples area remains a bargain for Canadians and Europeans alike because of a weaker U.S. dollar.
"What we heard from all of the tour operators in Europe, just two weeks ago, when we were over there for a trade show in Berlin, is that summer bookings are well ahead of last summer. We should see some good visitation for the rest of the summer," said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director.
The county is seeing one of its busiest seasons in years.
In February, there was nearly a 9 percent jump in visitors staying in hotels and other vacation rentals. There were 176,300 of them, up from 161,900 in February of last year.
"These are not snowbirds...These are heads in beds, these are tourists," said Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services.
Increases were seen from all of the markets tracked in the report, except for Florida.
"The Florida market, of course, is slightly down. We are not a bargain in this period of time," Klages said.
One of the bigger increases in tourism last month came from the Midwestern states. Visitation from that area rose 13.2 percent to 37,199.
The visitors report was presented Monday at a meeting of the county's Tourist Development Council, an advisory board.
"Everyone seems to be thinking this is just pent-up demand...It's much more than that. It's really a reflection of people feeling much more secure in their jobs, in their place in the economy – and that really plays a significant role," Klages told the council.
The economic angst is fading, but people are still saving and that continues to affect their travel plans, he said.
"They are not spending their money the way they did previously," Klages said. "It's still simply a cautious economy."
Still, tourists are spending much more than they were a year ago. Spending increased to $183.1 million last month, up 15.5 percent from February of last year.
"That was welcome news – that people were spending more money in the destination – and, of course, that means all expenditures that visitors do at restaurants, shops, attractions and hotels," Wert said.
Overall, occupancy for hotels and all other vacation rentals rose 3.3 percent in February, Klages said.
Another report by Smith Travel Research Inc., a market research company headquartered in Tennessee, however, showed occupancy shrinking by 1.2 percent in the Naples market in February, while some of its closest competitors in Florida grew their business last month. That report, however, only tracks occupancy at major hotels and is more focused on the groups and meetings business so it doesn't give the complete picture, Klages said.
Research Data's report includes condominiums and private homes, which are often rented by Canadians and Europeans who are here for a longer stay. "It is a very economical way of having a traditional vacation," Klages said.
The tourist tax collections in Collier County continue to rise, reflecting the stronger visitor numbers. There's a 4 percent tax collected on all hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
In January, a little over $1.9 million was collected in tourists taxes in the county. That was up more than 19 percent from a year ago.
During the Tourist Development Council meeting, Clark Hill, a council member and the manager of the Hilton Naples, asked Klages when hoteliers might see the average daily room rates return to what they were in 2007. Klages said he expects that to happen in the middle of 2013.
"That is the turning point," he said.
In his presentation, Klages said one of the more important trends is the increase in the number of new visitors. Of the visitors who came last month, 39.5 percent were coming for the first time and 8.6 percent of those had never been to Florida before and chose the Naples area.
"This is very impressive," Klages said.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden