Walton tourism study: 53% of visitors don't understand consequences of ignoring red flags

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The vast majority of visitors to south Walton County understand the flag system used to advise beachgoers of surf conditions, but less than half of them understand the consequences for entering the Gulf of Mexico when double-red flags are flying, signifying the water is closed to the public.

That's just one of the data points included in the visitor tracking study for the summer of 2021 conducted for the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) by Downs & St. Germain Research, the Tallahassee-based market research firm retained by the council's board of directors.

The study, which surveyed slightly more than 1,000 visitors to the county, found that 95% percent of respondents understand the beach flags, but just 47% of respondents understood the consequences of ignoring a double-red flag warning of dangerous surf conditions.

From June: Two hospitalized, in critical condition after near-drownings in South Walton

That can be a costly bit of ignorance, since the county earlier this year raised the fine for violating a double-red flag warning from $100 to $500.

From the time the new rules went into effect in February through the month of October, county enforcement personnel had issued 163 citations for double-red flag violations, according to Tony Cornman, the county's Code Compliance director.

The sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico along Scenic Gulf Drive in Walton County. The county's Tourist Development Council was briefed Tuesday by its market research firm on various aspects of visitation to South Walton and its beaches.

In addition to the fines, sanctions for a double-red flag violation can include court appearances and the prospect — even for people living out of state — of driver license revocation for failing to address a citation.

Related:Walton County commissioners approve tougher sanctions for double-red flag surf violations

Other data from the visitor tracking study, as presented to the TDC at its Tuesday meeting, showed that 15% of this past summer's vacationers were first-time visitors to the area. The study also showed that one-third of this summer's visitors had been in the area 10 or more times, Phillip Downs of Downs & St. Germain Research, told the TDC board.

Potential visitors: 'Right people at the right time'

Also Tuesday, Downs briefed the TDC board, a group of lodging industry professionals and local elected officials, on a "potential visitor" study that involved responses from nearly 700 people. Most of those people were from the Southeast, which already sends large numbers of tourists to South Walton, but the study included people from elsewhere in the country, Downs said.  

The study was aimed at answering the question of "how to get the right people here at the right time" to bolster the local tourism industry. One issue tracked in the study is exactly how deeply people are aware of South Walton as a specific vacation destination, he said.

For 2021, 45% of respondents were aware of South Walton as a destination, according to Downs. That's up from a 2018 study that found just 28% of respondents had that brand awareness. But, he added, that's still lower than for places like Panama City and other locations in Florida, where awareness gets close to 100%.

Another finding from the "potential visitor" study is that 40% of respondents don't differentiate South Walton from the nearby tourist destinations of Destin and Fort Walton Beach.

The study also showed that people still are lured to the area by the old-fashioned means of hearing about it from other people. Word-of-mouth, Downs told the board, is a key component of getting people to come to South Walton.