Orange Beach, AL – (OBA) – Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism has released partial year tourism figures for 2021 and the numbers through August are higher than all of the prior record-setting year in 2019.
New President & CEO Beth Gendler says the numbers are a testament to the area syncing with key travel trends over the last 18 months – road trip destinations with a lot of outdoor activities and lodging options that allow for personal space.
“As we have seen in previous crisis years, our guests are loyal and when they are ready to return, they come back strong,” Gendler said. “With international travel closed, when people were clamoring to get away over the last year, we fit what they were looking for.”
According to the tourism office, taxable lodging revenues through August reached an all-time high of $668 million, higher than the total for all of 2019, the previous record-setting year. Taxable retail sales through August hit $1 billion for the first time, again higher than the prior record of $938 million for 2019. For most of this year, occupancy levels for both hotels and vacation rentals have exceeded levels from both 2019 and 2020.
“Once again, we have seen strong numbers in terms of lodging tax and retail sales tax revenue, which continues the trend we had been experiencing since 2011, prior to the pandemic,” Gendler said. “While summer is still our most popular time for guests to come enjoy our beaches, the last 18 months of people being able to work or do school remotely allowed more flexibility to travel as destinations started opening back up to guests.”
Increases in revenue generally means an increase in visitors, but Gendler says final visitation estimates and tourism economic impact for 2021 won’t be completed by the state until spring of next year.
According to last year’s Economic Impact Report by the Alabama Tourism Department, Baldwin County welcomed 6 million guests who spent $6 billion with area businesses, resulting in 50,787 travel-related jobs that generated $2 billion in wages and salaries. When compared to the 2019 state report, the area had almost 900,000 fewer guests, but visitor spending jumped by $800,000. Of note, from 2019 to 2020, Baldwin County lost 3,475 tourism-related jobs. Gendler says those lost jobs were felt across the local tourism industry.
“We are a tourism economy,” Gendler said. “Our community is made up of many small businesses that service our guests, businesses that are owned by local residents - our friends and neighbors. And this last year has been immensely tough for those business owners to find workers. Our destination has historically had a slight worker shortage in our peak summer season, but the last year to 18 months has been much more challenging.”
To address the workforce issue, Gendler says the Gateway Initiative – a coalition of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and others including the tourism office – have developed a plan for a South Baldwin Workforce Training Campus that would provide much-needed housing for up to 2,000 seasonal workers, an education and training center, a childcare center and more. At least $214 million would be needed to fund the project.
“South Baldwin County continues to grow – both in terms of full-time residents and in guests who choose our area for their vacation,” Gendler said. “That growth is a blessing, but it also brings challenges we have to find solutions for. While our mission at Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism is visitor-focused, we are community inspired … it is our beach, our businesses, and our cities that make this such a great place to live and that make millions of people want to visit here. We are all in this together.”