Low gas prices, stronger economy point to record summer travel
PANAMA CITY BEACH — The conditions are right for a perfect storm of tourism this summer.
“Gas prices are low, and employment is picking up,” said Rick Harper, an economics professor with the University of West Florida in Pensacola. “It’s going to be the best summer for tourism that Northwest Florida has ever had.”
Harper said low gas prices throughout the year means many families have more expendable income, making them more inclined to travel this summer.
“When gas prices are low, it puts more take-home pay in people’s pocket,” Harper said. Families “can put that toward vacation.”
That trend is something Andy Phillips, the president of Counts Oakes Resort Properties in Panama City Beach, has seen reflected in the number of summer vacation bookings at his company.
Phillips said bookings for July are pacing about 20 percent ahead of last year, which has helped increase room rates modestly. June numbers have remained fairly flat.
“Our pace has consistently been up for July ... even three to four months ago,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a surprise because last year was huge.”
Even after a flurry of bad publicity surrounding Spring Break last year, Phillips said the Beach still went on to have a record-breaking summer season.
June and July are by far Panama City Beach’s biggest months for visitation, when the destination welcomes about 40 percent of its total visitors for the year. Last year, Panama City Beach welcomed more summer visitors than ever, helping the destination shatter tourism records in 2015, as indicated in revenues from the Tourist Development Tax, or bed tax, a five percent tax levied on short-term vacation rentals and hotel stays.
Since 2011, bed tax collections in June and July have grown by 48 percent and 34 percent, respectively, while year-end collections have grown by about 30 percent.
With Panama City Beach poised as a drive destination for most travelers, those numbers could rise again this summer.
“We do expect it to be a very busy summer travel season,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for AAA The Auto Group. “Primarily because gas prices are especially low.”
AAA expects summer gas prices to reach their lowest in 12 years.
“It just gives (travelers) more money to spend as a whole,” Jenkins said. “It’s a little more enticing to travel ... especially if you’re taking a road trip.”