It’s been three years since the worst of the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill hit the Gulf Coast and wounded the region’s tourism industry all the way from Apalachicola, Fla. to Texas-Louisiana state line.
Some claimed the Gulf Coast would never be the same, as people would have the perception of coastline permanently contaminated by oil. With the exception of the time immediately following the spill, the fallout wasn’t as bad as it was hyped and the Gulf Coast ultimately came back stronger than ever.
Alabama’s beaches were no exception to that comeback. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach had record lodging tax revenues, surpassing $300 million in 2012. Any given weekend, Alabama Highway 59 between Foley and the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge headed into Gulf Shores resembles a parking lot.
But those beaches and other beach hotspots along the Gulf Coast are still not living up to their full potential.
The beaches along the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast hold a strategic advantage in that they are more accessible by automobile than most of Florida’s better-known beaches along its eastern coast, including St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami’s South Beach. It’s the first spot where map turns blue, if you’re coming from the Deep South or the Midwest. Trekking further down I-75 or I-95 can add another couple of days to a family’s vacation.
Where those places have an advantage, however, over the Gulf Coast is that in some ways they have a better suited amenities and infrastructure for visitors.
For starters, based on data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average round-trip domestic plane ticket fare to any of the Redneck Rivera’s four major airports – Mobile ($544.34), Pensacola ($446.75), Valparaiso (Fort Walton Beach) ($509.09) or Panama City ($420.27) – is significantly higher than Florida’s more glamorous spots – Miami ($387.49), Fort Lauderdale ($285.26) and West Palm Beach ($388.66).
Understandably, there are population and inventory reasons for that competitive advantage. But if it is cheaper for a prospective beachgoer to fly from a major U.S. metropolitan area like New York City, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, why would they choose the Alabama or Florida Gulf Coast?
Another glaring inadequacy for the Gulf Coast is the lack of commercial lodging options for visitors.
Jimmy Buffett was really on to something when he got involved in the development of the site of the former Holiday Inn in Pensacola Beach, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Under the “Margaritaville” brand, it was transformed into a 162-room, $50-million beachside resort.
During peak tourist season, a Gulf-front room somewhere as modest as a Hampton Inn chain in some Gulf Coast localities can run in excess of $300 a night. While that creates the opportunity for a decent profit margin for the hotel operators, it could be a deterrent for potential visitors.
Aside from the plethora of rat-hole motels built as a place for spring breakers and recent high school graduates to cram into in and around Panama City Beach, the whole supply-and-demand equation doesn’t bode well for the visitor at any of the coastal destinations.
To his credit, Gov. Robert Bentley has been proactive on this front. Back in May he signed Senate Bill 231, investing $85.5 million of BP settlement money into the Gulf State Park, $58 million of which will be put toward a lodge and meeting facility. Ideally that upgrade will inspire more investment on that front, especially from private commercial interests. The condominium boom of the last 10-15 years along the Gulf Coast and a shorter tourist season has perhaps made it a less lucrative investment.
As long as four or five days’ worth of lodging can cost in excess of $1,000 in an economy that appears to be going nowhere fast, the Gulf Coast will continue to find it’s a competitive disadvantage on that front.
Finally, for those that do make the trip by car to the Gulf Coast, once you make your way off of I-65 and head for Baldwin County or the Florida panhandle, you’re having to put a lot of stock in Alabama and Florida panhandle back roads. Nothing says “world-class amenities” like being stuck behind a tractor on a two-lane road outside of Atmore, Ala.
For years and years, there have been pleas for improvements here, not only for the sake of tourism but for public safety-hurricane evacuation purposes as well. Finishing the neglected Foley Beach Expressway to I-10 and beyond to Bay Minette and I-65 has at least been mentioned as a priority by some of the hopefuls for the seat Rep. Jo Bonner vacated last week.
Accessibility is something that should have been considered long before this discussion. A look at the road map shows only two four-lane highways connecting mainland Alabama to the Gulf Coast beaches in Florida over the entire 150-mile span of the 31st parallel that constitutes the border of Alabama-Florida border. Making the flight from a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast to safety has been struggle for those residing on the coast for years and years.
The region will continue to reap the rewards of its beaches for years to come. No doubt, this will be another record year for south Baldwin County as well. But making the sell to come to the Alabama Gulf Coast usually begins, “Alabama has a beach?” Then upon further investigation, it turns out it will cost double what it would for a few days at some run-of-the-mill brand-name hotel in south Florida, making the economics an undeniable obstacle for maximizing the coast’s full potential.