Trading snow for sand: More tourists visiting Destin for holidays

Annie Blanks | 315-4450 | @DestinLogAnnie | ablanks@thedestinlog.com
A family shops among holiday decorations at the Destin Commons on Thursday. ANNIE BLANKS/DESTIN LOG

A little-known, but growing facet of the tourism industry is emerging in Destin.

Over the past several years tourist development tax numbers have been steadily increasing during December and January. Tax dollars collected so far in December 2016 compared to December 2015 increased 22 percent, according to data gathered by the Okaloosa County Tax Collector’s office. Tax dollars have been increasing steadily in January the past few years.

“So far, everything is showing us an increase from last year, and that’s especially what we’re seeing in the hotels and condos,” said Darrel Jones, interim director of the county's Tourist Development Department. “Things are changing.”

Local hotels are seeing more heads in beds. Amanda Krueger, general manager for Home2 Suites and Hampton Inn in Destin, said she is seeing a “surprising” number of reservations over the holiday season.

“We already have a lot on the books for Christmas and New Years, which we’re kind of surprised about,” she said. “Starting Dec. 23rd and on is when it’s going to really start picking up. ... People must be trying to get away from all the snow up north.”  Doug Hustad, general manager for The Henderson in Destin, said he has reservations from all over the southeast, including Georgia, Texas, New Orleans and Florida on the books for Christmas.

“Even in the holidays, they’re still looking for some sunlight and they still love our wonderful beaches, and they want to be in a wonderful resort,” he said.

Both Destin and private businesses offer several events throughout the holiday season to attract tourists and locals. The Henderson has events throughout the holiday season to keep visitors entertained, and events like last Sunday’s Harbor Boat Parade also drew a large crowd.

Michele and Dean Herr, tourists from Michigan who visited Destin for the first time last week, attended the boat parade. They were at Pompano Joe’s admiring the holiday beach decorations Thursday and had plans to do a variety of things during their vacation.

“We drank margaritas at Margaritaville and we went to Panama City Beach to go shopping at Pier Park,” Michele Herr said. “Now we’re going to HarborWalk Village, and tonight we’re going to Seaside Repertory Theater to see a Christmas play.”

Dean Herr said the warmth of the Emerald Coast was their main draw to visit the area for the first time.

“We’re trying to get our warm holidays in, because where we’re going back to is negative 3 degrees,” he said.

Amy Lea Todhunter, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, plans to come to Destin for Christmas for the first time.

“I really enjoy being down there, especially during the holidays,” she said. “I guess I like the colder weather better, and it’s kind of cool having palm trees and Christmas lights.”