Tourist visits up in March except in Panama City, Panama City Beach

VALERIE GARMAN Panama City News Herald
College students walk along the beach in front of La Vela in Panama City Beach during the second week of Spring Break 2016. PCB's bed tax numbers were down 41 percent in March compared to last year.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Spring Break crowds substituted Panama City Beach for other coastal cities this year, helping to push visitation numbers up in virtually every destination on the Gulf Coast.

“There was definitely an increase in the presence of college spring breakers,” said Kay Magahan, public relations manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama. “We have always been more heavily a family Spring Break destination.”

Overnight visitation in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach rose by 28 percent in March, as shown in collections from the area’s lodging tax, or bed tax, collected on short-term rentals. March bed tax collections in Panama City Beach dropped 41 percent year over year.

Spring Break crowds were so heavy in the Gulf Shores area that the City Council there convened in mid-March to implement a ban alcohol on the beach through April 17. Magahan said at this point, the city does plan on putting the same rule in place during Spring Break next year.

Closer to home, the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area also enjoyed a hefty increase in visitation in March, with bed tax collections up 23 percent. But Ed Schroeder, director of the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said families comprised the majority of Okaloosa County’s March visitation.

“Families, families, families,” Schroeder said of the agency’s marketing strategy. “Everything we do is to go after families — until we get into the fall and winter when families are not traveling.”

With Easter falling in March this year, Schroeder said officials were expecting to see a 15 to 20 percent increase over last year, when Easter fell in April.

“We never look at March and April independently; we look at those months together,” he said. A 23 percent increase is “not crazy good for us, but we’re certainly glad to see it. We really won’t know how to interpret that until we see April.”

Overall, Schroeder said the Destin area did not see much college Spring Break spillover from Panama City Beach.

“Since we’ve never really branded ourselves as a college Spring Break destination, we’ve never really been on the radar for that,” Schroeder said, citing strong policies against rowdy behavior on Okaloosa County beaches and a 25-plus age requirement among many vacation rental companies.

“It’s pretty easy to manage whose going to come to your destination by your marketing, but also by your policies,” he said. “We are proactive in looking for alcohol-related issues.”

Elsewhere in Florida

Across the state, however, Daytona Beach had a flashback to the late ‘80s this March as spring breakers showed up in droves.

“This year, we had the biggest crowds we’ve seen in years as far as spring breakers,” said Capt. Tammy Marris with the Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue. “Alcohol was the main issue. We kind of contribute that to what happened in Panama City” Beach in March 2015, when an especially rowdy — and violent — Spring Break resulted in a rules crackdown, including a drinking ban on the sandy beach.

Alcohol is illegal on Volusia County beaches year-round, something of which Marris said many breakers were unaware. She said law enforcement officials handed out about three times as many alcohol violations as usual on the beach this year, and also saw three times the number of arrests.

“It got to the point where we had to start arresting people,” Marris said.

Overall, Daytona Beach saw a 25 percent boost in business in March, according to bed tax numbers, which tourism officials also contribute to Daytona Beach Bike Week and “Spring Family Beach Break,” a two-week, family-focused event held at the tail end of the month.

“To see our local tourism industry’s efforts pay off in such a big way is really gratifying,” said Patricia Ruffino, interim director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “March is typically our strongest month, but this one set records.”

In Walton County, March bed tax collections also were up almost 20 percent year over year, but officials said the destination did not attract many college spring breakers.

Jon Ervin, director of marketing and communications for Visit South Walton, said the area is different from neighboring destinations because about 90 percent of overnight rentals are “nontraditional inventory,” mostly vacation homes.

“Even though we share the same Gulf of Mexico as our neighboring counties, the product is somewhat different,” Ervin said. “The demand for those, what is essentially specialty products, has been very high.”

With only about 11,000 units, Ervin said spring and summer book up quickly as more and more families make South Walton an annual tradition.

“We don’t really promote the spring season or summer season anymore, as hard as that is to believe,” Ervin said. “When folks come to stay, they have a 96 percent chance to repeat — it becomes a tradition.”