Alabama tourism industry revenue sets record in 2021 thanks in part to beaches

By Melanie LeCroy
Lifestyle Editor
melanie@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 5/27/22

It seems everyone is traveling to Alabama lately. Last year the state's revenue from tourism set a record surpassing even pre-pandemic levels. Tourist spending reached nearly $20 billion that year …

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Alabama tourism industry revenue sets record in 2021 thanks in part to beaches

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It seems everyone is traveling to Alabama lately. Last year the state's revenue from tourism set a record surpassing even pre-pandemic levels. Tourist spending reached nearly $20 billion that year with $9 billion of those dollars spent in the state's Gulf Coast region.

Gov. Kay Ivey announced the numbers during a May 18 press conference.

The overall amount of tourism revenue in 2021 exceeded previous records by $16.7 billion, nearly 17%. The Alabama Tourism Department's economic impact report said 28.2 million people visited the state in 2021 and spent $19.6 billion for food, accommodation, travel, shopping and incidentals. Guests paid more than $1.1 billion in taxes to state and local governments.

Locally, Baldwin County welcomed over 8 million visitors in 2021, which was 28% of the number of total tourists that visited the state. That number was up from  5.8 million from 2020. Those visitors spent over $7 billion and directly supported 43,144 jobs.
State tourism director Lee Sentell credited the governor's strategic initiatives for helping the state's tourism industry almost double in revenue in just 10 years. Revenues went from $10.7 billion in 2012 to $19.7 in 2021.

"The governor's decision to reopen Gulf Coast beaches after the peak of COVID closures helped to mitigate pandemic losses," Sentell said. "The robust spending by tourists visiting the beaches in 2020 kept the state in the top five in the nation for least percentage loss of revenue at the height of closures."

Grants and partnerships have helped push Alabama tourism commercials to a wider audience. The tourism department received a $10 million federal CARES grant to fund a major digital advertising campaign that features Alabama's 67 counties. More than 268 million prospective travelers saw the campaign. A partnership with the Retirement Systems of Alabama and Gray Television has grown Alabama tourism commercial reach from 44 stations to 113 nationwide, now reaching 36% of the nation's households.

The broader reach has helped Alabama grow in travel search activities since 2019, rising from No. 30 to No. 4 nationwide, according to a recent Google study by Trips to Discover.

HomeToGo, a vacation rental marketplace, said that Gulf Shores is one of the most popular destinations for the Memorial Day holiday weekend with search demand for local vacation rentals up 24% versus 2021.

While tourism was booming in 2021 the outlook for 2022 is not as robust.

"The talk among my peers and the CVB is that 2022 is going to look a lot more like 2019 then 2021. We all throw 2020 out," said Hunter Harrelson, owner of Beachball Properties in Gulf Shores.

Harrelson said Beachball Properties has an 87.4% occupancy over the four days of Memorial Day compared to 90.4% in 2021. The Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan market was at 86.9% in 2021 compared to 69.3% in 2022. In comparison in 2019, Beachball Properties was 76% occupancy versus the area market at 75.6%.

"Based on these numbers, the market as a whole is slightly behind 2019 and way behind 2021. Beachball is very aggressive with our pricing, and that is one of the leading factors to us keeping up with our own 2021 numbers," Harrelson said.

"The outside forces, like inflation, are making a difference. Luxury properties are not feeling that as much. If you think about it, a high earning family does not see the immediate impact of high gas prices and inflation. They will still travel and pay a fair value. But the family with a median income of, let's say $50,000 to $60,000 are feeling it much harder. That family typically paid $2,200 to $2,600 a week for a condo in our area. Last year that same condo was going for $3,500 plus."

Harrelson said Alabama no longer has the advantage of being open while much of the rest of the country shutters for Covid-19.

"This year we are competing with the entire U.S., you can fly without a mask, take a cruise, etc. If we don't adjust, we lose out," he said.

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