GULF SHORES AND ORANGE BEACH, ALA. – Business and industry leaders from across Baldwin County gathered at the Orange Beach Event Center on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 for the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber’s First Friday Forum, sponsored by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT). Beth Gendler, President and CEO of GSOBT, reported on the impact of visitors to the area through the end of this year’s summer season.
“Two of our primary key indicators of the health of our tourism industry are taxable lodging rentals and taxable retail sales,” explained Gendler. “Through August of this year, our area is pacing well above the total year-end figures in both categories compared to pre-COVID 2019, our last ‘normal’ tourism year before the pandemic. For January through August this year, taxable lodging rentals are at $843 million compared to $575 million in 2019. In fact, 2023 so far has also outpaced our total 2021 taxable lodging rentals figure of $815 million, and we are optimistic we will be right in line with the $890 million for 2022 by the end of the year.”
Taxable retail sales, which surpassed $1 billion in 2021, are also pacing in line with both 2021 and 2022 - $1.07 billion in eight months of 2023 compared to $1.4 billion for each of the previous years.
Gendler stressed that this year really marks a return to normal travel patterns following the large influx of visitors during COVID due to the appeal of the beaches and the outdoor options in the area.
“Remember, 2019 was a record year,” she said. “2020 – the year of a worldwide pandemic and a major hurricane – was down only 7%; 2021 was up 48%; and 2022 was up 11% over that. Those are incredible numbers.
“The entire world was open to travel this year and people have endless options on where to take their vacations,” she added. “From 2020 through part of 2022, there were travel restrictions or people just were not comfortable traveling internationally yet, and our community greatly benefited from that by being an easy drive-to destination. This year, we are back to competing not just on a regional scale, but truly on a national and international scale, just like before the pandemic.”
While final 2023 economic impact numbers won’t be compiled until next spring, the impact of visitors on the area is significant. According to the Alabama Tourism Department’s 2022 report, an estimated 8.3 million visitors came to Baldwin County, with a strong majority of those (6.4 million) coming to Alabama’s beaches. Those visitors spent almost $8 billion in the county and helped employ 65,000 people with tourism-related jobs. Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the Fort Morgan area account for 55,000 of those jobs.
“We are a tourism economy here,” stressed Gendler. “It is our bread and butter. It is the number one industry in our county, and tax revenues from tourism make up a large majority of the budget for both the City of Gulf Shores and the City of Orange Beach. Our community relies and thrives on our guests.
“But more than that, the tax revenues generated by our community have a tremendous benefit to the rest of the state – 4% of our lodging tax revenues go to the state’s general fund and 4% of our retail sales tax revenues go to the state’s Education Trust Fund.”
According to GSOBT data, the majority of visitors to the area are coming from the Southeast and Midwest, with some surprises like California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia rounding out the Top 25 states visitors are coming from. Out of a study of 1.2 million trips to Alabama’s beaches, courtesy of Arrivalist, 30.8% of those stayed for 4+ nights.
Gendler further explained that summer continues to be the most popular time for guests to come enjoy the community, but other seasons of the year are expanding, which brings patrons to local businesses year-round.
“We are no longer a summer destination only,” said Gendler. “With sports, special events, meetings, and additional marketing, we have grown spring, fall and winter. Leveling out occupancy throughout the year helps our businesses year-round and keep their employees working.”
Gendler also emphasized the role the tourism office continues to play in the local community.
“For the past 30 years, our mission has not changed,” explained Gender. “Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism serves to develop and execute marketing promotions and programs that promote our community as an attractive travel destination, enhance our region’s public image as a dynamic place to live and work, strengthen our community’s economic position and vitality, and provide opportunities for the residents who live and work here.
“With key programs like Leave Only Footprints and BEach SAFE, we also serve a vital role to those who choose our area for vacation … to keep them safe, informed, and responsible.
“Our role is to support, guide and lead this community in growing our product and visitation in ways that are consistent with the character of our destination. Keeping true to our destination’s character has, and always will, remain a guiding factor for what we do.”
She closed her presentation with one of her favorite explanations of the role tourism plays in a community:
If you build a place where people want to visit, you will have built a place where people want to live.
If you build a place where people want to live, you will have built a place where people want to work.
If you build a place where people want to work, you will have built a place where business wants to be.
And, if you have built a place where business wants to be, you will have built a place where people want to visit.
It all starts with a visit...
-Maura Gast, Executive Director, Visit Irving Texas
In 1993, the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) was founded as the official destination marketing organization for the areas of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. The CVB expanded in 2005 with the creation of the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission. In 2010, the CVB was renamed Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT). In 2022, the Sports Commission expanded its scope to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports & Events. This year celebrates 30 years of the tourism office telling the story of what makes Alabama’s beaches so special.
Gendler’s full presentation is publicly available. It can be found on the tourism office’s website Partners Page, under Presentations, then First Friday Forum, November 23.