September 2020

It has, to use an understatement, been a very strange year for tourism.  Certainly International tourism has taken a severe hit from the global pandemic.  That applies to incoming visitation to the USA from overseas, as well as outbound tourism.  My contacts tell me that even the movement of leisure travelers within the country has been severely affected as I’m sure you’ve heard from news stories.  Although theme parks in Florida have reopened, it appears that the number of visitors has severely declined.

It’s not all bad news however, particularly for our area of the Northern Gulf Coast.  I’m honored to be a council member on one of the Tourist Development Councils here so can report on how the summer has progressed.

Without doubt the early part of the summer season – April and May – were not at all good as the area was on lock down.  Beaches, hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants opened in June and that was a lifeline for many of our hospitality companies and their employees. Although bars were closed again, many hospitality companies adapted well to the new situation.

Visitor numbers appear to have been high for the counties from Franklin all the way through to Escambia.  I understand that South Alabama have experienced similar results.  Some counties appear to have done better than others of course, but results show that hotels and vacation rentals have managed to maintain occupancy and importantly, have not had to discount.  The restaurants have also reported high occupancy in the tourist areas, although they have had to restrict numbers dining to adhere to social distancing.  My contacts in the activities sector who provide fishing trips, rental of watercraft, admissions to attractions etc., have reported a very good summer.  The fact that schools stayed out of session longer than normal has also extended the season.  

It appears that many tourists who would normally travel further afield have considered that the Northern Gulf Coast has been a convenient, economical and safe place to vacation.  The fact that our area is drivable from many areas of the South East has meant that something like 80% of the visitors have taken that option.

Bookings for the fall are also holding up pretty well although the convention and group business has been severely hit.  These latter sectors are vital for the industry, but there are signs that rebooking may be happening for 2021.

Of course it’s not all good news.  Many companies have suffered and that has resulted in layoffs and furloughs of employees, which is tragic on many levels. 

Having a year when few things are ‘normal’ in the hospitality and tourism business does allow time for a great deal of re-evaluation by both companies and the destination marketing organizations like the CVBs and tourist boards.  Indeed, it’s essential.  I know from personal experience that it has provided the impetus for changes to how to attract tourists, what sort of tourists are needed and what activities should be provided in the future.  The enforced ‘pause and evaluation’ will I think, allow for our local tourism to change tactics to improve matters for both our residents, visitors and the employees.  We may well see a change to the old patterns of visitation with an expansion of the seasons, tourists choosing to engage in more ecotourism, outdoor activities,  family friendly and family safe pastimes.

Let’s hope that there are silver linings to this particular cloud.