What pandemic? Alabama’s booming beaches set new tourist records this summer
Crowds flocked to Big Beach Brewing’s bar last summer to sample IPAs, Stouts and Belgian-style beers. Customers arrive regularly every summer since the Alabama Coast’s first craft brewery opened five years ago.
But this year has been different. Crowds turned out in record numbers every month of 2021, even as the coronavirus pandemic persisted. Much like condos and rental homes in the coastal region, sales continue to reach amazing new levels.
This summer has been particularly mild: in June, sales jumped 26% above 2020. July saw a 36% bump.
âSummers almost always turn out to be busy for us on the weekends, but what was most striking about the numbers this summer was that we were also seeing an increase in income on weekdays,â said Millie Shamburger, Big Beach Brewing spokesperson.
Commercial activity in Alabama’s seaside towns continued its trend of breaking annual records by surpassing 2019, considered the the high water level for tourism on the Alabama coast since the BP oil spill disaster in 2010.
This year’s activity also overshadows the strong post-pandemic outbreaks of last year after the beach closures which lasted from mid-March to May 1, 2020.
The tragic spread of the delta variant across the Gulf Coast in late July and August had little effect on the boom. Although rental companies report receiving calls from worried guests, few have retreated from their frolics at the beach.
The occupancy figures for the area over the Labor Day weekend were 95%, meaning almost all of the available condos and rental rooms in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were occupied. Part of the vacation bump was linked to a wave of visitors to Louisiana escaping the state after Hurricane Ida made landfall in southwest Louisiana on August 29.
âSince March, we’ve seen the best occupations ever,â said Randy Hall, President / Owner of Liquid Life Rentals. “The records include more occupancy and more income.”
He added, “We haven’t seen any direct impact on demand from people for a delta variant beach vacation.”
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism statistics show revealing results of the tourism boom:
* For this year, the region has fluctuated on average at 90% occupancy of its rental units (condos and rental houses) during most of the summer, more precisely in June and July. The region hit 80% around May 15 and stayed above that level until the first week after the Labor Day holiday, when a natural drop occurs after the summer season.
* Last year, the region peaked at 85% occupancy in mid-June and mid-July but fluctuated between 70% and 85% for most of the summer.
* For 2019, the region peaked at 85% occupancy in mid-June and mid-July, but fluctuated between 70% and 85% for most of the summer.
* This summer, the region experienced normal occupancy from the very beginning of May, the first Saturday of the month showing an occupancy rate close to 70%. The first Saturday in May 2020 was in the low 40%, and the first Saturday in May 2019 was close to 50%.
âWhile we certainly didn’t know what to expect this year, Alabama’s beaches had a record summer season,â said Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. âIt will be several months before we know if this will be a record year. “
Malone said several factors could be at play behind the beach boom, the most important being its location in a breezy, outdoor setting on the beach where social distancing is not an issue.
“The Gulf Coast of Alabama has ticked several boxes that industry experts say would help tourism revive – being able to get there by car and places where people can be outdoors.” , did he declare. âGulf Shores and Orange Beach are a day or two by car from at least a third of the United States, and our beaches and outdoor offerings – like water sports and Gulf State Park – are what people want. go out and to our large number of vacation rentals. the properties allow families to stay together indoors if they prefer.
Malone also said that the cruise industry that was not functioning this summer could also have led to an increase in business, saying that “people who normally go on cruises in the summer are making alternative plans.” Carnival has not yet held any cruises departing from the Alabama Cruise Terminal in Mobile since mid-March 2020.
Alabama’s beaches aren’t the only record-breaking beaches. Florida’s Gulf Coast has been a hot spot for activity this summer.
Business owners in Pensacola Beach said their summer season exceeded pre-pandemic sales, and rental agencies in Destin and Fort Walton Beach also reported summer occupancy rates above 90%.
Visit Panama City Beach said its very touristy market has also set summer records, according to media reports.
Malone said: âThe increase in the number of visitors is not only unique to our destination; in the southeast, many beach and state or national park destinations have experienced busy summers.
Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism, said the force of traffic on beaches and campgrounds during the pandemic’s first full year has helped Alabama recover from a collapse tourism at the start of the pandemic. He noted that Alabama had declined 20% in tourism activity in the first full year of the pandemic – from March 2020 to March 2021 – while activity nationwide fell 45%. .
âAlabama has the natural attractions of beaches, state parks, the Robert Trent Golf Trail, caves and campgrounds that people travel long distances to enjoy,â Sentell said.
Citing informal surveys, Sentell said the average family traveled 450 miles to reach their Alabama destinations last summer, an increase of about 70 miles.
âThat won’t change when the pandemic is under control,â Sentell said. âIt’s a change in lifestyle and culture that will last for years. “
‘Worth the wait’
The biggest challenge for the region, especially in the summer, was the tight labor market across the country. This prompted Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism to unveil a marketing theme for 2021 called âWorth the waitâ.
Restaurants and entertainment venues have offered bonuses or salary increases to attract employees to a hospitality industry market that continues to recover from last year’s shutdowns. Flora-Bama offered sign-up bonuses of $ 500 to line cooks, dishwashers, chefs and oyster shellers. The Gateway Initiative – a collaboration of the Foley-based South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and the Coastal Alabama Chamber of Commerce in Gulf Shores – has promoted an apprenticeship scholarship program aimed at increasing the number of workers along on the side. And the group is also examining the region’s housing needs.
Rouses Market, which operates grocery stores in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, offered a pay rise to summer workers and handed out bonuses to employees who worked between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
âA lot of great people have come from all over the country to the beach,â said Kenneth Jones, Alabama district manager for Rouses. He too has announced record sales this summer.
Matt Pugh, director of operations for an Orange Beach-based restaurant group, said they were offering hourly wage increases to employees without tips. He said the increases were meant to be seasonal, but the catering group decided to continue with them for now.
The restaurant group includes Cosmo’s Restaurant & Bar, Cobalt the Restaurant, Luna’s Eat and Drink, GT’s on the Bay, BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets, and Alabama Coastal Catering.
Pugh said his restaurants had a record year of sales and that “I think we would have done a lot better if we had been properly staffed.”
He said visitors have started adjusting their culinary behaviors to accommodate crowds at restaurants, which includes long wait times during dinner hours.
âI think some restaurants like Cobalt, we can’t get much busier at night,â Pugh said. âI think a lot of our guests have learned that if you want to go out and eat and not wait for hours (for dinner) then (they) should go out during lunch times. This is where we took our biggest company-wide stepâ¦ we maximized more during our breakfast activities.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in operations, but it has not diminished summer tourism.
The spread of the delta variant has been severe across the Gulf Coast, with Baldwin and Mobile counties being the top two in Alabama for infections and hospitalizations in early August. The situation got so bad that in mid-August the federal government stepped in and sent a team of doctors and nurses to help the South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley – the closest hospital to the beaches of Alabama – with the upsurge in infections and the increase in the number of patients. . A portable mortuary trailer has also been set up outside the hospital, serving as a worrying reminder of the number of cases raging in the county.
âWe took it very seriously,â Pugh said. Employees, he said, had to wear masks. The spread of the delta variant also created scheduling problems, as more than 30 employees were sick with the virus. The catering group has around 500 employees.
âHonestly, it cost us dearly,â Pugh said, noting that some restaurants – like BuzzCatz – have had their opening hours adjusted.