Outlook Sunnier for Alabama Gulf Coast Tourism
The beach is back.
That’s what folks on the Gulf Coast are reporting coming off a disastrous 2010 attributed to both the flagging economy and the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began in April, The Birmingham (Ala.) News reported.
Attendance at Alabama Gulf Coast beaches was about 3.6 million in 2010, down from 4.6 million in 2009, according to numbers released last week by the Alabama Tourism Department.
“That doesn’t even tell the true story,” Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said Friday. “We were down about a million visitors, and those that were here were here on fairly deeply discounted rooms. We tried everything we could to get people down here to take a look.”
But with the oil spill capped and hazmat workers still present but much less conspicuous than last summer, there are signs that tourists will be returning to the beaches.
“The beaches are cleaner and prettier than ever,” said Birmingham attorney Tommy Spina, who has two houses he rents in Fort Morgan, which is surrounded by the Gulf and Mobile Bay. “They are absolutely pristine.”
Spina said that one of his two houses stayed booked as always last year, but the other had a “very noticeable dip.”
“But it is coming back,” Spina said. “I have heard that rentals in general are up by a pretty good percentage.”
Garrett McNeil, who lives in Destin, Fla., and is chief operating officer of Birmingham-based Ark Real Estate Strategies, said the properties they are involved with from Panama City to Destin are doing better business.
“I can tell you that right now, we’re up over last year in terms of rental demand, and also for sales, for that matter,” he said. “They’re both trending upward.”
But, McNeil cautioned, that was the trend at this point last year, too, before the spill.
“Everyone was feeling that last summer was going to be better than the previous few summers,” he said. “That didn’t materialize in large part because of the spill and the perceived effect it would have on the beaches, and in some part due to the economy, too.”
‘Motivated by fear’
Many of those who came to the beaches found that the effect of the oil wasn’t nearly as dramatic as they feared from media reports.
“It was frustrating to be sitting there on the beach staring at beautiful, emerald-green water and white sandy beaches, and the news wouldn’t reflect that,” McNeil said. “The spill had a very direct negative impact on many people, but some of the effect on business was because of perception rather than the reality. It clearly, clearly had a negative impact on the amount of folks coming down.”
Spina said he experienced much the same thing in Fort Morgan.
“It certainly was a problem, and it certainly wasn’t good, but it wasn’t as catastrophic as it seemed,” he said. “People were motivated and driven by fear.”
Laurie Hobbs, spokesperson for Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort near Destin, said that the resort “had to work hard for every reservation we got last year.”
“Sandestin was more fortunate than others because we have the ocean and the bay on either side,” she said. “Our business was down between 10% to 15%, and others were down as much as 30%.”
But that is changing, thanks to some promotions that Sandestin is running and some other factors, Hobbs said.
“First of all, people just want to get back to the beach,” she said. “Those people who may not have come last year miss the beach, so you’ve got a combination of loyal guests and pent-up demand. Another element is the improving economy.”
McNeil agrees, and said the economy may help beach tourism in the end.
“People are tired of being scared about the future and just want to get back to living and enjoying time with their families,” he said. “A four-hour drive to the beach is a reasonable vacation. Maybe folks in the past who would have gotten on a plane and gone somewhere else are more budget-conscious about their choices.”
McNeil said that while rates are still lower than they have been historically, they are inching up from where they were last year and will probably climb even further.
“You’re likely to get a better deal committing early,” he said. “As places start to fill, the rates will go up.”
Spring Break indicator
Foster said that his tourism group is “feeling really positive this year” and that events like the pre-Memorial Day Hangout Festival, a music festival that debuted last year and brought thousands of people to the coast, will only help.
“The numbers we’re seeing so far for Spring Break are very positive, and as goes Spring Break usually goes the summer,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get back to prespill numbers, but being down 50% is a dramatic down. Time will tell if we can overcome that.”