ORANGE BEACH — Local business owners, leaders and community members crowded the Orange Beach Event Center early Friday morning for the First Friday Forum tourism update hosted by Gulf Shores …
ORANGE BEACH — Local business owners, leaders and community members crowded the Orange Beach Event Center early Friday morning for the First Friday Forum tourism update hosted by Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.
Beth Gendler, president and CEO of the department, gave an update on retail sales, visitors and rental data from the past year. She said the two primary indicators of the health of the island's tourism industry are taxable lodging rentals and retail sales, which are now higher than the pre-COVID-19 numbers.
"Through August of this year, our area is pacing well above the total year-end figures in both categories compared to pre-COVID-19 2019, our last normal tourism year before the pandemic," Gendler said. "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."
Gendler also said the current taxable retail sales have already passed $1 billion with two more months left before the year ends. This is the first year the island has seen a return of "normal" travel patterns after the large flood of visitors during the pandemic in 2020 due to the outdoor options offered around the island.
"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," Gendler said. "Those are incredible numbers."
According to Gendler's presentation, approximately 8.3 million people visited Baldwin County in 2022, with the majority (6.4 million) coming to the island.
"We are a tourism economy here," Gendler said. "It is our bread and butter, it's the No. 1 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."
While it is no surprise that the majority of visitors are fellow Southerners or snowbirds from the Midwest, the data provided by Gendler did reflect a few outliers. According to Gendler, California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and Virginia were in the top 25 states visitors traveled from.
Gendler also said that while the summer season continues to be the most popular among visitors, the island is quickly becoming a year-round destination spot.
"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 said. "For the past 30 years, our mission has not changed. 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."
"The world has opened back up. People can travel to Europe or big cities, but people are loyal," Gendler said. "They came back, and these numbers prove that."