This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend which we traditionally think of as the kickoff to the summer tourist season so we checked in with Dr. Rick Harper about how the season is looking.
He says, "We have a relatively short summer season, it’s good that Memorial Day Weekend is early this year. Once school is out we reach the height of our tourism season. Our visitor population doesn’t come through the months that many locals enjoy the beach most- September and October. To grow our tourism more you look at the expensive assets that have to be installed- restaurants and hotels, if we can keep them fuller through more of the year we would have a more dynamic industry."
We asked, do you have data to give you an expectation of what’s to come indication of what what’s to come for this region this summer?
"It’s been fairly slow through the first quarter, just 1/10 of 1%. In speaking to hoteliers the first quarter was slow, poor weather made the rest of the country stay home. The bookings for Memorial Day Weekend and the rest of summer are looking strong so we should be up, we were down first quarter against last year but we should overall have a bigger 2014 than 2013.
And Pensacola gets a boost each year as a result of the annual Gay Memorial Day Weekend celebration, can you talk about that?
"Yes, we do get a boost, dollars coming from outside the community create economic activity, create jobs here. It’s a good thing to keep the beaches full. Once we can start getting visitors in April, May, August, Sept, October, that’s when we will have arrived to have a fully integrated developed economy with year round jobs. The LGBT summer kickoff is important because of those outside dollars coming in."
Also, the summer tourism season also provides a bump in seasonal hiring, right?
"It does and if you compare to Okaloosa and Walton county, the updated job numbers Okaloosa are down just a notch below 4% unemployment, Walton has about 4% unemployment, Escambia and Santa Rosa are doing pretty well also, so that’s good news for the job market. Since we bottomed out and it finally started to grow again in January 2010 we’ve added about 8,000 jobs in the four years since then. In Ft. Walton Beach/Destin/Crestview area they’ve gained about 5,000 jobs since the end of the recession. But we’re still not where we need to be, we’re about where we were just before Hurricane Ivan 10 years ago. We need more growth."
News this week is that gas prices are coming down, can you talk briefly about the impact of fuel prices on tourism in this region?
"If airline ticket prices rise, which they are (due to merging, etc) that’s still a plus for us because we’re still considered a drive-to market even with the growth of air travel. I don’t expect gas prices to have much of an impact one way or another for this summer."