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Not a vacation mecca, but it pulls in visitors

A drive-to destination without beaches and theme parks, the county dangles nature-based tourism and Brooksville's charm as a magnet.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


Hernando County may be a modest vacation destination compared with other parts of Florida, but officials say it's just that small scale that helped the area's tourism industry survive the bashing taken by bigger names after Sept. 11, 2001.

After the terror attacks, many people chose the automobile over the airplane when getting away on vacation, said Sue Rupe, director of the county's Tourist Development Department. And Hernando County, she said, is almost exclusively a drive-to destination.

The entirety of Rupe's budget comes from the collection of a tourist development tax levied on any rentals shorter than six months, including motel rooms. In 2000, $260,164 was brought in by the tax. The figure dipped somewhat to $259,872 in 2001, but rose to $269,614 in 2002.

"We have kind of held our own and are back up," Rupe said. "People are optimistic about tourism this year."

That optimism, Rupe knows, does not involve extravagant visions of Hernando County suddenly becoming a tourism mecca. After all, the same qualities that helped it weather the post-Sept. 11 industry downturn are those that keep the county out of the big leagues.

The area lacks substantial beaches and, hence, beachfront development; it has no large theme parks, civic center or a historical event of national renown. "It's not thought of as a tourist area," said Chuck Ross of Tampa-based Atlantic Hospitality Advisors, which tracks the industry. "That's not a negative," Ross went on to say.

"It is something that could be reversed by promoting it."

The first step in successful promotion, Ross said, is to figure out what your product is.

According to Rupe, the "product" the county has to sell is nature-based tourism and the historic charm of Brooksville.

"That's the Florida time forgot," Rupe said, echoing one of the county's advertising slogans. "We still have that feel of old Florida."

Most visitors to Hernando County are Florida residents, she said, followed by visitors from New York, Michigan and Illinois. They come primarily to enjoy fishing, boating and golf, she said.

For native Floridians, Rupe said, the county evokes memories of the state before the surging development that has altered so many communities. Some Floridians who visit are looking to relocate here, she said, because it reminds them of old Florida.

"People from the Jupiter and Naples area remember their towns being like Brooksville," she said.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who served on the Tourist Development Council last year, said the Brooksville of today is reminiscent of the St. Petersburg of her youth.

That unspoiled charm is appealing to baby boomers like herself, Rowden said, who remember driving through small towns and making a "stop at the soda fountain to have a hamburger."

The area is also attractive to kayakers, canoe enthusiasts, bird-watchers and sports fishers, Rowden said. The natural areas and Brooksville's small-town feel, she said, put Hernando County at an advantage compared with other areas of the state.

In the coming year, Rupe said, her office will work to attract small conferences to the county. She is also working with neighboring counties to market regional bike trails and driving tours of the coast.

In addition, she said, she is reaching out to the bridal industry to raise the county's profile as a marriage destination.

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