Destin tourism population estimated between 25,000 and 60,000

Annie Blanks | 315-4450 | @DestinLogAnnie |
A lifeguard patrols a crowded section of beach in Destin in this Daily News file photo.


Even at normal capacity, the city of Destin can feel crowded.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate that Destin’s permanent population rests at a comfortable 13,000 residents. However, the city’s transient residents — tourists — fluctuate with seasons and holidays, and can swell the population into the tens of thousands.

Though no single entity tracks the exact number of people in the city at any given time, there are several ways to estimate transient population, according to Zach Jenkins, director of the Haas Center at the University of West Florida.

“This isn’t like an amusement park where we know how many people are coming and going,” Jenkins said. “But there are ways we can estimate.”

He said Tourist Development Councils in other counties will sometimes conduct surveys of tourists to determine how many are in the area at any given time. The Okaloosa County TDC has not conducted any recent surveys, but Jenkins said by looking at several factors, he can conduct “back of the envelope,” or informal, estimates on Okaloosa County’s tourist numbers.

By factoring Okaloosa County bed tax revenue, rental unit and hotel statistics, family size numbers and occupancy rates, as well as by comparing Okaloosa County to Walton County’s most recent tourism survey, Jenkins estimates at peak season Destin has up to 25,000 tourists in the city.

“That doesn’t count day trippers, people who come over from Escambia or Walton counties,” Jenkins added. “And there’s also local residents who vacation during those times. It’s still going to be an estimate of what it looks like. And without a direct survey of tourists to answer those kinds of questions, it may be that we just don’t know for sure.”

Destin City Manager Carisse LeJeune estimates that, at peak tourist times, there are likely even more than 25,000 people in the city.

“We hear numbers thrown around often. Destin Water Users has even given estimates based on water flow that total around 60,000,” LeJeune said in an email to the Log. “However, without tourist surveys taken in Destin like the ones referenced in Walton County, it is difficult for us to estimate the number of tourists.

“What I can definitively say is that our town of approximately 13,000 residents swells immensely in the summertime and during spring break with tourists,” she added.

LeJeune said that city infrastructure struggles to keep up with such large fluctuations of tourists every year, even with its 18 public parks, 11 beach accesses, Harbor Boardwalk, 70 miles of roads, 90 miles of sidewalks, stormwater infrastructure, public parking and life-safety services contracted through the county.

“Currently, the city receives approximately $300,000 from bed tax funds via the Tourist Development Department to maintain beach accesses,” LeJeune said. “This is greatly appreciated. However, we struggle to keep up with our infrastructure maintenance and improvements in high tourist-traffic areas (areas south of Hwy. 98).”