February 2020

It’s amazing how quickly things change isn’t it? Last month I wrote about the growth in tourism world wide and about trends in tourism here on the Northern Gulf Coast. Particularly I pointed out that Chinese tourism had grown from 47 million in 2009 to 166 million in 2019 and was on track for 400 million by the end of the decade. As I write this (in late January) the Coronavirus is having a major effect on Chinese and therefore world tourism. Flights are being canceled, borders closed and cities quarantined. By the time you read this I sincerely hope that the outbreak has been brought under control and that things start getting back to normal. However, it does highlight how something happening on one side of the planet can have an effect on worldwide tourism.

Last month I also talked about the changes to visitation here on Gulf Coast and how our peak tourism season has been shrinking. Well, during the past year much in depth research has been carried out on how, when and why people travel to our area. It’s part of a study to establish what we ought to be planning, tourism wise, not just for the next year but for five and ten years in the future.

July 2019 saw a decline in overall visitation here but those slightly fewer tourists actually spent more. Interestingly, the research is showing that the peak, summer season isn’t actually shrinking, it appears it’s starting earlier! Let me explain.  In the past we had a spring break season and an Easter season. Often these two seemed to merge together, depending on when Easter fell. There was then a break before tourism took off again around Memorial Day. Then a further pause until the schools broke. Well, it now appears that the ‘season’ is starting in April and running through till September. The numbers of visitors are more evenly spread than previously and it seems that June has taken over from July as being the time for highest occupancy.

Why is this? The first reason is that in the past visitors mostly came from the South East of the US, and for many destinations on the coast, Atlanta was the place many tourists called home.  Certainly for a good number of beach towns along the coast Atlanta is still vitally important. Those visitor families have been coming for years and a trip to the Gulf is a yearly tradition. Further west along the Gulf, inland Alabamians have headed for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area. This hasn’t changed but we are now getting many more visitors from Texas. For some beach towns, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston have become as big or bigger suppliers of summer tourists as the traditional cities. 

Low cost airlines are bringing folks from Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Detroit, New York and other North East and Midwest cities. Visitors from these places take their vacations at different times than we do, which spreads the season.

This is great news as the extended season allows for less seasonal jobs in the hospitality industry and reduces crowds and traffic in the middle of the summer.

Another result of the research is that we are now able to track spending patterns of our tourists. This is done by looking at the use of credit cards in the area and tracking back where people originate. We can now see how much people spend and what they buy.  Interestingly we’re finding that many of the ‘new’ visitors are spending their cash on different activities than the traditional tourists. That’s great information for those people running dolphin tours, eco-friendly activities and more active pursuits like paddle boarding and scuba diving.

Overall, the more we know about our visitors, the better we can be at planning for the future. Research is everything and much better than jumping to conclusions based on one season’s data.  The studying of year-on-year trends allows us to plan long term, rather than just react to things that happen occasionally like bad weather, short term economic changes or indeed, problems that happen half a world away.