Visit, Vacation, Revitalize

A new airport, improved roads and savvy marketing will transform Northwest Florida into the new tourism mecca




Visit, Vacation, RevitalizeA new airport, improved roads and savvy marketing will transform Northwest Florida into the new tourism mecca
By Linda Kleindienst


Tourists have been coming to Florida for 450 years, but the industry didn’t come into its own until the invention of trains, air conditioning and jet planes.

Our beaches, sunshine, warmth, glitz and Mickey Mouse have been a beacon for tourists from across the nation and the globe for more than a century, drawing millions of visitors and billions of dollars to the state each year.

The result: Tourism became "the oxygen for Florida’s boom," according to Raymond Mohl and George Pozzetta in their book "The New History of Florida." More people have visited Walt Disney World’s "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride than live in the United States.

But now, an economy in turmoil has driven down travel — especially by air — and thrown most of Florida’s tourism industry into a tailspin. Still, Northwest Florida, where the vast majority of tourists arrive by car, could be well-positioned to survive. And ultimately, a tourism industry that features culture, history, ecological treasures and pristine beaches could provide the spark to restart the region’s growth machine.

Early Visitors

Florida’s first tourists arrived on Pensacola’s shores in the year 1559. The Spanish didn’t stay long, many falling victim to an unexpected hurricane only weeks after landing. But it wasn’t long before they returned, followed by others from around the world and later the nation, giving birth to a tourism economy.

The United States now is the third most popular destination for international tourists — and Florida is one of their favorite vacation spots. The Sunshine State also is at the top of the list for domestic travelers, many of whom head south to warmer climes when winter’s winds blast across the North.

Florida tourism kicked into high gear in the mid-1800s, as paddle-wheelers plied the rivers of North and Central Florida, introducing out-of-state travelers to the region’s natural and exotic beauty, not to mention glass-bottom boats and up-close encounters with alligators and flamingos. In the late 1800s, Henry Flagler and Henry Plant built their railroads down the east and west coasts of the state, constructing luxury hotels along the way that catered to the high society of the North.

Yet while travelers have long flocked to places such as Miami, Naples, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and St. Petersburg, Northwest Florida has stood mostly in the shadows. Its beaches today are still mostly uncrowded and pristine. Kayaking a dune lake or river can be a lonely affair. The region’s rich history is often found off the beaten path, in out-of-the-way pioneer settlements or isolated Spanish and Civil War-era forts and battlements. Few Floridians who live outside the area know that Northwest Florida has caves — and a natural waterfall.

It is even dubbed "Forgotten Florida" in the official vacation guide put out by Visit Florida, the official tourism marketing corporation for the state.
How to change that?

Many in the region are banking on the soon-to-open international airport in Bay County, with its long runway expected to bring in big passenger jets from around the nation and the world. Some are pushing for the region to think bigger — to become a year-round tourism destination instead of banking everything on a 100-day stretch of the summer.

Looking to Lure Beachgoers

Back in the 1960s, Jimmy Lark built an observation tower as a landmark to make it easier for people to find his amusement park on Panama City Beach. An old aerial photo of the tower shows the roller coaster that was built in 1963 — and little else. Nearby, there were small cottages and motels that catered to the seasonal traffic.

Buddy Wilkes, general manager of Shipwreck Island water park, which is owned by Lark’s son William, remembers working at Miracle Strip three decades ago.

"We mostly relied on Alabama and it was mostly families," he says. "More of a blue-collar clientele than a Myrtle Beach would see. We had no tourist development council. We had a business news bureau that put out pictures of girls in bikinis."

In the 1970s, Seaside was still pretty much 80 acres of empty beach and scrub, and Highway 30A in South Walton County was too far off the beaten path for many tourists to venture there.

Many Americans were likely scratching their heads in confusion when Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman ranked St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Gulf County as the country’s No. 1 beach in 2002. (Southern Living has declared Destin the South’s No. 1 beach.) But news of the coast’s secret weapon — its 227 miles of sugar-sand beaches that rank among the finest in the world and are sometimes referred to as the "soul of the region" — has gradually leaked out.

Panama City Beach has become a haven for high school and college Spring Breakers. Vacation homes have sprung up across St. George Island and Cape San Blas. Resorts hug the beaches of Sandestin and Destin.

And business has been steadily growing. Even during the summer of 2008, with gas prices hitting around $4 a gallon, Bay County lodging facilities earned more revenue than they did the previous year — $155.6 million, compared to $151.2 million in 2007.

Will They Come in 2009?

Despite concerns about the economy, a combination of lower gas prices and the inherent American belief that everyone should have a summer vacation is expected to lure at least as many visitors to Northeast Florida’s beaches this summer, the region’s peak season.

"Flat is considered the new up," says Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I think summer will be good. I don’t think it will be a record-breaker, but I think we’ll hold our own."

Most tourists come by car — depending on the area, it can be as high as 90 percent — because the region draws heavily from the Midwest and Southeast. And area resorts already are offering discounts and deals designed to pique interest and lure vacation-goers. Vacationers themselves aren’t hesitant to ask for a deal — including at least one who reportedly offered a local hotelier $100 for a week at the beach.

"We’re getting some real off-the-wall requests," says Mel Ponder, executive director of Coastal Vision 3000, a consortium of seven counties from Apalachicola to Pensacola that promotes "THE Beach." "People are hurting and looking for a deal. But they are still looking to get away and get their toes in the water. They may not be able to afford Disney or the Bahamas, but they can come to the beach."

John Russell, who took over as senior vice president of operations at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort earlier this year, says he expects visitors to be more logical in their spending this summer. In fact, they can spend the same amount of money on food and extras as they would at home — but they would still be giving a boost to local businesses, such as supermarkets. And resorts, he adds, need to better emphasize the free and inexpensive things a visitor can do in the area.

"A lot depends on how we market and how we present to the consumer," he says.

Ironically, construction at Sandestin wasn’t completed until 2007, and then high gas prices and a souring economy hit in 2008.

"Last summer was kind of a shock to us," Russell says, adding that he believes the luxury market was hit particularly hard. "We don’t think this resort has really hit its stride. But we’re cautiously optimistic about the summer. It’s not going to be record-setting. But for people who didn’t go to the beach last year, maybe they’ve weathered the storm and didn’t get laid off, so a little of the fear may now be gone."

The biggest drop is expected to be in business-related meetings as companies grow more sensitive to how their spending is viewed by stockholders and employees during a rough economy.

Football and Politics

Florida’s capital city is not a typical tourist destination. It has no theme park, no beach, and its landscape of moss-covered oaks and rolling hills is very different from the state’s traditional tourist destinations.

Tallahassee’s visitor numbers are subsequently far lower than the beach-oriented resort areas, totaling 2.4 million in 2007. The numbers represent tourists who are drawn to the area by football, universities, state government or events connected with myriad state associations that make their headquarters there. A survey of those visitors in 2007 revealed that more than 50 percent came for leisure activities or to visit friends and relatives, while 25 percent came to conduct business, 9 percent came for conferences or meetings, and 11 percent listed "other."

With their strong community support and alumni systems, both Florida State and Florida A&M universities pack the town on fall football weekends. In October 2003, the FSU-Miami game generated $10 million in spending, with 65 percent of it coming from visitors who stayed in local hotels. The 2004 FAMU homecoming generated $2 million.

Visitors also are attracted to the Legislature’s annual nine-week spring session, which keeps rooms booked and restaurants busy. And the Capitol itself is a year-round draw for camera-toting tourists.

"The numbers we get are influenced by so many factors, including gas prices, the overall shape of the economy, the ‘windy’ season, fires, a particular storm," says Sharon Liggett, president and CEO of the Tallahassee Area Conventions and Visitors Bureau. "You never know what’s around the corner."

The area features mostly budget-friendly hotels and boasts free and low-cost attractions such as a state museum and nearby state parks.

But Liggett said that Tallahassee is "definitely undiscovered" and that even many state residents have never seen their Capitol. Yet attempts to attract large groups are hampered by the lack of meeting space. The city can’t host a convention of more than 300 people.

"Meeting planners want a convention center attached to a hotel, and we just don’t have that," she says.

This summer, the city’s slogan to attract visitors is "No Splurge, Splurge" — an effort to tell people they can still have a good time on a low budget. If they come, they will help 13,347 people involved in visitor-related employment keep their jobs.

History and Nature Abound

Pioneer settlements. The third largest air and space museum in the world. Caves, natural springs and the Great Florida Birding Trail. While they might not be what one normally associates with Sunshine State tourism, they are a major draw for visitors coming to the 16 counties of Northwest Florida.

In 2008, Pensacola had a record year for tourism, with 3.5 million visitors. This summer, income generated by tourists is expected to be slightly less, because some hotels have dropped their rates, but the occupancy rate is expected to be about the same.

Pensacola also is in the midst of celebrating the 450th anniversary of the date when Spanish explorers first set foot in Florida — even before they landed in St Augustine. In February, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain visited. A tall ship reminiscent of those that brought the explorers is visiting this summer. And on Saturday, Aug. 15, the actual anniversary date, there will be a downtown festival, a reenactment of the first Catholic Mass in Florida — on the beach, of course — and fireworks.

"There’s a lot of rich history to explore, and we’re seeing good numbers in our historical district," says Laura A. Lee, public relations manager for the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The reopening of the road to Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, closed after the area was hit by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, also is expected to lure more visitors this summer. In addition, there is the National Naval Aviation Museum located on Naval Air Station Pensacola, which is traditionally the area’s second biggest lure, attracting up to 1 million visitors a year.

"I think Pensacola will always be a family-friendly destination," Lee says. "And all our research shows that families still go on vacation in a bad economy, although those visits may be a little shorter."

Rural Florida also is seeing its share of tourism growth, including increasing numbers of visitors from European countries such as England and Germany. Locals voice hope for a bright future.

Marti Vickery has noticed more international tourists visiting rural Florida attractions, including the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement Museum — 47 acres in Blountstown that highlight local family history and boast a collection of historical and re-created buildings that simulate a pioneer agricultural community true to Northwest Florida. While getting a feel for how pioneers lived, visitors to this area also engage in activities that include bird-watching, hiking, cave diving and canoeing local rivers and bays.

"A lot of the international tourists are the nature-based, heritage tourists we want," says Vickery, the pioneer settlement’s executive director, adding that word of the museum has gotten out via the Internet and stories in various travel magazines. "This, I believe, is going to be a mainstay for some of the rural communities that don’t have something else to offer. Nature-based tourism is what will keep some of these little mom-and-pop towns open."

Edd Sorenson’s business is a good example of that. He owns Cave Adventurers in Marianna, which caters to divers who want to explore the caves in spring-fed Merritt’s Mill Pond.

He doesn’t advertise — he subsists on business brought in by word of mouth. And he’s busy almost year-round, catering to divers from such far-flung locales as Australia, Russia, Brazil and Switzerland.

"Winter is our busiest time," he says. "The Europeans come here when it’s snowing at home. It’s still warm to them here. And they love it here. It’s not real crowded. It’s peaceful and tranquil."

Better Access, Longer Seasons

"The Florida Panhandle is one of the greatest hidden jewels anywhere in the U.S.," says Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Tallahassee-based Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "But how do you get people to come here? We’ve got to make it easier."

When the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport opens in May 2010, many hope it will open new avenues for tourists to conveniently get to Northwest Florida from around the nation and the world. Local leaders are working to lure a low-cost airline to the new airport, which will feature a 10,000-foot runway to handle jumbo passenger and freight jets, and they have visions of international charters in the not too distant future. The current airport’s runway is 6,300 feet, the shortest commercial runway in the state.

"We think the airport will open up new markets in an unprecedented way," says Rowe, head of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The airport will allow us to grow very quickly. We hope to maintain that base of visitors who come by car and grow the number of people flying."

Meanwhile, the region’s other airports in Tallahassee, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola also are making improvements and expanding service before the new Panama City facility can even open.

As the area where tourists can be drawn from grows because of better transportation opportunities, many local resort and community leaders say the time is right to push for a longer season.

Offshore fishing, golf, tennis, shopping, art galleries, high-end restaurants owned by celebrity chefs — all can be found in Northwest Florida and are available 12 months of the year.

"The summer traffic is our lifeline," says Coastal Vision 3000’s Ponder. "But as we grow, we want the ‘shoulder’ season to grow too. Spring and fall are incredible times to come. And there are fewer people on the beach."

Mike Chouri, general manager of the Hilton Sandestin Golf Resort and Spa, envisions a major growth spurt for the area’s tourism industry within five years, not just because of the new airport but also because of improved roads and expansion at area seaports.

"By that time, we will have solved the transportation issue, and that will help people discover us," he says. "I believe in consistency. If it’s beautiful, you need to promote it all year.

My favorite month is October."

In fact, off Fort Walton Beach, anglers can catch 20 varieties of fish year-round, says Darrel Jones, president and CEO of the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. By comparison, Key West has 22. And the area offers more than 1,000 holes of golf.

"I met a father and son who read our golf ad," Jones says. "They flew in to Pensacola, and it took them three days to get to Fort Walton Beach. They were planning to stay for two weeks."

Jones’ office has been advertising the lure of the area’s golf courses in Chicago for at least a decade. Now Coastal Vision 3000 is looking into promoting a Northwest Florida golf trail to boost visitor numbers.

Mark Bonn, director of graduate programs at FSU’s Dedman School of Hospitality, believes the region needs to do a better job of selling its best attributes to potential off-season visitors, saying the change in attitude is necessary to help offset the loss of group and business travel. He has been working with Coastal Vision 3000 to help them do that, in part developing half-day and full-day itineraries for motor coach companies.

"The year 2000 was the best year in the history of travel, but those days are over," Bonn says. "You can only grow exponentially for so long, and then things will plateau. But it’s a resilient business. Northwest Florida is a drive market, with 90 percent of its visitors coming by auto or RV. It’s in a lot better shape than destinations 50 percent dependent on air."

Sustainable Tourism

As more tourists converge on the region in the coming years, however, will it be a place they will want to keep coming back to?

That’s a major concern of Robert Davis, the founder of Seaside, who particularly worries about the future of two-lane Highway 30A in Walton County. He would like to see the area move beyond tourism — in fact urging more consideration of ways to limit tourism’s growth — to instead focus more energy on economic development.

"30A should be using its scenic beauty, wonderful open spaces, increasingly cultural life, soon-to-be-good transportation links to the world … to attract people to move to the area, to create jobs beyond tourism and allow the area to grow without having to four- or six-lane a beautiful scenic road to accommodate more tourists on July 4," he says.

Davis’ concern is that the area be protected from turning into one of those places that, "in Yogi Berra’s immortal malapropism, ‘nobody visits anymore because it’s too crowded.’ "

Andrew Holdnak, a professor in the University of West Florida’s Hospitality, Recreation and Resort Management Program, agrees that the coastal counties in particular need to move beyond tourism and its unpredictable boom and bust cycles to develop a more balanced economy.

"I look at Panama City Beach and the big condos … and I don’t know if there is enough beach to satisfy all the people who live in that quarter mile," he says. "We don’t want to negatively impact the environment. We want to save it for future generations."

While some coastal areas do have height restrictions for construction on the beach, others don’t.

Also of growing concern is discussion in the state Legislature to allow oil drilling within three miles of the shore, what some see as a short-term economic gain that could endanger some of the region’s greatest resources.

The Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Jones, whose office sits behind the dunes on Fort Walton Beach, remembers the sludge that had to be cleaned off the beach several years ago when oil tankers from Texas decided to rinse their bilges out with seawater.

"They keep telling us it’s safe," he said of the legislative proposal that was passed by the state House but never heard by the state Senate this past spring. "If it’s safe and there are no spills, that’s great. But accidents happen."