COLUMN: The trials and triumphs of tourism in Destin

William Hatfield, Going Forward
The Destin Forward Class of 2014 toured Henderson Beach State Park as part of tourism day. From this boardwalk you can see the remnants of old Highway 98, which used to run along the gulf.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Log Editor William Hatfield is a member of this year’s Destin Forward class. He is filing stories chronicling his experiences in the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program. As part of its focus on tourism, the class heard from several panels of tourism experts and industry leaders, and it toured the Destin Airport, the Destin History and Fishing Museum and Henderson Beach State Park.

Whether you realize it or not, you are an integral part of the tourism business in Destin.

“We are all in the tourism industry,” said Jeanne Dailey, founder and CEO of Newman-Dailey Resort properties in Destin.

And 70 percent of tourists who flood Okaloosa County stay in Destin. They come for the sugar white sands, emerald waters and the small town-feel of what has become a world-class resort town.

“It’s Southern hospitality,” said Dan Martin, director of sales and marketing for Resorts of Pelican Beach. “It’s inbred in us to be kind.”

But it takes more than kindness to compete with neighboring counties and a bevy of brands including Emerald Coast, Visit South Walton and 30A.

“There is far more competition both in Destin and around Destin,” former TDC director Dan O’ Byrne O’Byrne said. “Some of our folks have gone over to Rosemary Beach. Our trick is to determine where did they go and how to get them back.”

In the last fiscal year, Okaloosa County’s increase in bed tax revenue lagged behind Walton and Santa Rosa counties. Following the fraud scandal involving former TDC director Mark Bellinger, the county temporarily stopped virtually all tourism marketing.

While Destin and countless businesses may have paid the price for one man’s misdeeds, “There was never anything wrong with the product or the destination,” O’Byrne said. “The whole county government went through a painful self-examination.”

And so industry leaders see a bright future for this once sleepy fishing village. And they’re banking on it. The Emerald Coast Convention Center is adding a 30,000-square-foot outdoor space and considering the virtues of attaching a headquarter hotel to the facility on Okaloosa Island.  Targeting more than just the Southeast, industry leaders are also looking to emerging markets that will become the feeders for future tourism.

“States are looking at us that we have never seen before,” Martin said, particularly after the BP oil spill scare of 2010 put the Gulf Coast on the world’s stage. “They are asking, ‘Is that beach Photoshopped or airbrushed?’ ”

And nowhere embodies that beauty more than Henderson Beach State Park, with its bleached beaches and more than 6,000 feet of natural scenic shoreline.

With an estimated economic impact of $1.5 million each year, this hidden jewel of Destin beckons to travelers around the nation with its 60 campsites and nature trails.

The land was preserved by the Henderson family and opened to the public in 1991.

“If this wasn’t here you’d probably have more condos, hotels and restaurants,” said park employee Doe Schuster.

And that’s the Destin drama. The natural beauty brings the tourists, but the economic creations of man keep them coming back.

And we all rise and fall with the industry that has come to define Destin.

So have you hugged a tourist today?

William Hatfield is editor of The Destin Log and member of the 2013-14 Destin Forward Class. You can reach him at


Destin Forward is the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program that gives participants a “behind the scenes” look at the city of Destin through various programs and educational opportunities. To learn more about the annual program, visit or call 850-837-2711.

Small airport, big impact

A 2010 state of Florida study determined that Destin Airport generates a $40 million economic impact, with $12 million of that directly tied to tourism.

While the business of the airport is directly tied to the weather, its busiest days are Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends when the airport is at 90 percent capacity.

The airport has served the likes of legendary entertainer Bob Hope, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, actor Morgan Freeman and singer Sheryl Crow.

The largest plane ever served was a Gulfstream 650 owned by the Dillard’s Corporation.

It also partners with our military. Three Chinooks from Fort Campbell and an Apache helicopter from Fort Rucker have used the airport as a launch point for training missions. CV-22s from Hurlburt also have been known to use the airport for touch and goes.

“With the military we never know when we are gonna get them,” said Brian Cherry, general manager of Regal Air at Destin Airport.