If there was ever any question whether Baldwin County’s beaches would rebound after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said those concerns have since been allayed.
“When you look back through the last eight years, we’ve had a consistent growth pattern on an average rate of about 12 percent per year,” he said last Saturday at the governor’s beach residence in Fort Morgan.
Malone and Lee Sentell, the state’s tourism director, sat down with Lagniappe to discuss economic impact numbers released the same day. The state’s full 2018 annual tourism report is to be released in a few weeks.
Initially, it indicates 6.5 million tourists spent $4.77 billion in Baldwin County last year, sustaining 51,636 jobs and generating $938 million in taxable retail sales plus $527 million in taxable lodging sales.
“That’s tax money that translates directly into more revenue for the cities, the county, the school system and more,” Malone said.
Preliminary numbers from January and February suggest 2019 will be another record-breaking year. January spending is up 13 percent over one year ago while February is up 19 percent.
Sentell piped in: “Alabama is hot and Baldwin County is the hottest. The future for our whole state is phenomenal this year because we have had more nationwide PR over these past six months.”
Sentell had copies of Travel + Leisure magazine and National Geographic Traveler magazine. The first, a Meredith Corp. publication claiming 4.5 million readers, devoted 10 pages to Alabama this month. The second, with a total circulation of more than 735,000, devoted 12 pages to the state in its February/March 2019 issue.
“The exciting thing the last couple of years is it’s the first time in state history the revenue from tourism grew by more than $1 billion per year … and y’all are the anchor of that,” Sentell said, adding that Mobile and Baldwin counties account for 30 percent of tourism statewide. “Then, when you started seeing the numbers coming in from Baldwin County in December, January and February, we thought this is a really great beginning to the new year.”
“Each time we’ve had a disaster we’ve come back bigger, better and stronger than ever before,” Malone said. “If you think about those 6.5 million guests as 2.5 million family units, you think about them sitting down at some point during the year to have a discussion about where they wanted to take a vacation. Of all the choices they have — Disney, a cruise, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Caribbean — they have made a conscious choice to come here and spend not just their money, but really — what’s a more precious commodity — and that’s time. So for those people, we owe every inch and every ounce of our service to say thanks.”
Malone said data also indicates about 30 percent of visitors to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are residents of Alabama, while the majority of all others are from the Southeast and Midwest.
“Summer will always be our largest season since the kids are out of school,” Malone said. “Spring has always been a strong season and fall is starting to catch up. Now you’re seeing more Midwesterners and Northerners coming down to escape the harsh weather. We can see it in our hotels and in our restaurants, too.”
Numbers have also been boosted by sports tourism — the area hosts the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Tournament in May, the South Eastern Conference’s Women’s Soccer Tournament in the fall and will host the USSSA Global World Series in June — new attractions such as OWA and The Lodge, and other improvements at Gulf State Park, the Hangout Music Festival and additional concerts at The Wharf, more shopping and dining destinations, and ecotourism opportunities.
There’s also been a recent focus on sustainability. Malone called The Lodge at Gulf State Park a “game changer” for energy efficiency, build quality and environmental mitigation. He said the demographics of visitors have also changed, with a large generation now entering retirement and spending more time on the road.
“The baby boomers are doing things,” he said. “They are going out to eat every night — it wasn’t uncommon to see some of the more higher-end restaurants this winter be on an hour-and-a-half wait to seat a table on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I know because I was trying to eat.”
Asked to what he would attribute the trend, Malone said, “it starts out with our family-friendly commitment and our leadership in the community. We’re engaged with the people who come here. We don’t put up with shenanigans and we have a very strong commitment to the environment,” adding that Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism’s “Leave Only Footprints” campaign has encouraged a cleaner, safer beach.
“I’ll never pretend there is any better marketing than word-of-mouth, and nowadays social media is very important, too. We’ve assembled a great team to help promote the area.”
Malone said records indicate about 80 percent of all visitors return at least once.
“When they return home, we want them to take a great, positive emotional experience that they will remember and want to come back to,” he said.
It has been a banner year as the number of visitors continues to grow. Indeed, the revenue departments of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have reported lodging revenue has increased from $281 million in 2011 to the $527 million last year. Retail sales were at $586 million in 2011, $352 million less than they are today.
“Memorial Day, Labor Day and Fourth of July are really our big weekends, and Hangout Music Fest gives us a fourth,” Malone said. “They are younger guests and they come from all areas of the country and Canada and we find … once they get here, they fall in love with the place and they come back.”
The sports events have been “highly successful,” he said, noting there are five more years left on the beach volleyball contract. “They are playing for a national championship and you can see some of the girls who played here then competing on an Olympic team.”
But Malone also acknowledged some growing pains, suggesting many of the area’s traffic problems should be resolved with oil spill funding and the state’s new gas tax revenue.
“When you live here you get used to the traffic patterns and can adapt to get off the main highway or go to the grocery store at non-peak times,” he said. “I think in the next decade or so you’ll see significant improvements in the way people can move in and out and around in a way that will be beneficial to both visitors and residents.”
There are already 17,443 condo units or hotel rooms in south Baldwin County and another 941 are under development. To accommodate continued growth, Malone said, “there are more on the drawing board.”
“Growth brings more challenges, but I’d rather be dealing with growth than with decline,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the oil spill was so traumatic. We were raised on the beaches and we raised our kids on the beaches. They are all the state of Alabama’s beaches and we’re stewards of them. I hate to see anything threaten that, especially tar balls on the beach.”
Sentell agreed. “Only Florida and Alabama have Gulf Coast beaches and there is a whole big country north of us who think nothing of getting in their car and driving 12 hours to come to our beaches.”
Ultimately, Malone said he was encouraged by the numbers but hopes all tourism-related businesses can someday expect steady year-round revenue, allowing them to sustain full workforces through all four seasons.
“We’re making big gains in tourism, but a lot of the times it still takes the help of the local population to support the off-season,” he said.
For locals who want a change of scenery, Sentell suggested exploring other parts of the state including Birmingham’s restaurant and nightlife scene, Montgomery’s civil rights landmarks, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville and bicentennial events this year in smaller communities statewide. The state’s bicentennial culminates Dec. 14 with activities, a parade and special shows at the state Capitol.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).