The people running Tampa International Airport have made no secret about their desire to attract international passengers and the money they will spend in the area.
On Monday, they showed what they’re doing about it.
With more than 100 tourism boosters, airport volunteers and employees cheering at every turn, the airport unveiled a multimillion expansion project designed to handle all the baggage and other needs of flights coming into Airside F, the outlying terminal where international passengers board and disembark.
The $27 million project began in the spring of 2012 and is expected to be completed by the end of the summer. But the conveyor belts are in place and working, a large video screen is up and touting the attractions of the area and a long mural of an idyllic deserted beach is painted on the wall behind the belts.
The expansion is to accommodate flights of British Airways and Edelweiss, shuttling travelers from European locales, and flights to and from the Caribbean, including four flights a week to Cuba.
Joe Lopano, the airport’s chief executive, said the expansion can now comfortably handle the baggage for three wide-bodied planes that each disgorge as many as 300 European passengers at one time.
The theory is that the less time they spend stuck at the airport waiting for luggage and getting through U.S. Customs screening, the more time they have to spend their hard-earned euros in the hotels, restaurants and resorts of Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
The expansion was built even though the airport’s master plan calls for eventually moving the international flights airside to the opposite end of the terminal. The expansion is designed to handle the demand now, said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink.
“The entire master plan, including the proposal for the international airside, takes a build-as-demand-dictates approach,” she said. “The expanded Airside F is intended to handle international traffic for the near future.
“When we get to the point that Airside F can’t handle the international flights,” she said, “we can go forward with the new airside described in the master plan.”
Lopano said the number of international travelers coming through the airport has jumped 34 percent over the past two years.
“This terminal is the terminal of ‘Yes, we can,’” he said, standing at the bottom of two escalators that take passengers to the shuttles and then to the main terminal.
He said flights from Zurich aboard Edelweiss are typically 98 percent full of tourists flush with cash to drop on vacations here. A single international airline flying regularly into Tampa can bring in $154 million a year to the region, he said.
European passengers generally do not come to Florida to scrimp on a vacation, he said. They have money, he said, “and they’re not bringing it back to Germany. They’re spending it here.”
Santiago Corrada, the newly hired director of Tampa Bay & Company, which coordinates business and events at the Tampa Convention Center, started his new job on Monday.
“This is a great coming out day for me,” he said to Lopano. “Thanks.”
Corrada was hired to boost Tampa’s image and he wasted no time Monday, talking about the things that make this market attractive to foreigners. There are beaches and theme parks and sports venues, he said, and more.
“We have it all right here in the Tampa Bay region,” he said.
Corrada said in 2012, the region collected $21.5 million in tourism taxes, 10 percent higher than the year before.
What’s lacking is visitors from down south, he said, and a push will be made to draw tourists from the Caribbean and Latin America. “We’ve missed out on that over the past few years,” he said. That lucrative market has gone to Miami and Orlando.
But with the expansion of Airside F, which opened in 1987, “The pieces are all falling into place for us,” Corrada said.
Before the expansion, the airside had one baggage claim belt. Besides the added belts, two new passport checking booths for Customs agents were added, bringing the total to eight.
Roger Dow, president of U.S. Travel Association in Washington, attended the event and said making a quick and easy entry experience for foreign visitors to the area is critical in luring airlines and passengers from abroad.
Overseas travelers “spend $4,500 per person, per visit,” he said. “They leave their money and then they go home.”