July, and we’re in the middle of the peak summer tourist season here on the Northern Gulf Coast. If you live here, you’ll recognize the signs of the busy season – the difficulties of getting along the roads (think of Highway 98 anywhere along the coast), trying to find a table at your favorite restaurant or in many cases, just going to the store! But remember, this is what our economy relies on. Not only does it keep thousands of us in employment, but pays huge amounts of sales tax (which keeps tax for the locals low) and through Tourist Development Tax (Bed Tax) funds our own tourist promotion, beach safety and tourism infrastructure. That latter tax ensures that locals don’t pay to keep the tourism economy going.
Despite the economic benefits of the summer peak, we have to admit that it does disrupt our ‘normal’ life. But looking at statistics for the year so far it appears that there are developments that show our tourism is heading in the right direction.
Our Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus along the coast have been working to ease the peaks in our tourism year by persuading visitors that spring, fall and winter are actually better times to come to the area. It’s working. We are receiving more travelers outside the peak summer months. Not to the extent that we will be over-run all year, but by spreading the visitation we actually make more jobs year-round rather than seasonal. We also don’t need to build more condos home or roads, as we already have the infrastructure to cope with the summer (well, pretty much) so it can certainly handle an increase outside of the summer.
The CVBs, hotels, property management and restaurants are also reporting that visitor numbers for the summer so far are slightly down on previous years. Some of this can be attributed to last year’s visit of Hurricane Michael but some decrease can also be a result of the change in marketing. The good news is that these fewer tourists are apparently spending more money. The accommodation folks are keeping their average daily rates higher and not discounting – that’s good for everyone. Restaurants are also claiming that visitors are spending more.
There’s another reason for this variation in tourist numbers. Those known as Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are now traveling with their families. In fact they are the largest single group of visitors we have. It appears that they would rather have two vacations of 4 days each, than the previous generation’s single vacation of 7 days. Obviously that’s an increase of one day overall, but also means that they are likely to have a shorter summer break but an additional trip outside of the peak season. Again, good news for year round jobs and a more balanced economy.
Of course national holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day are still going to be peak times and we can expect full occupancy in the hotels and vacation rentals, crowded roads and full restaurants. It’s all part of the summer for those of us on the Northern Gulf Coast, and long may it continue.
Next time you’re frustrated by the holiday traffic remember what a friend of mine said. Faced with a gridlocked Highway 98 he just pointed out that every tourist car was ‘a credit card on wheels’. Great news for us locals.J