Because of the global pandemic and economic recession that took over most of 2020, Navarre Beach, like many tourist destinations, saw its tourism tax revenues plummet in March, April and May as beaches shut down and uncertainty about the coronavirus crippled vacation markets globally.
But curiously, by the end of the year Navarre Beach was bucking the trend seen throughout much of the rest of the Panhandle — its tourism tax revenue was up almost 27% in October and 55% in November, a surge that helped soften the downturn seen at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We lost our money in March, April and May, but we still came in at $3.5 million for the whole year, which is only $400,000 less than the year prior,” Santa Rosa County tourism director Julie White said in an interview with the News Journal on Wednesday. “We would have made way over ($3.5 million) if we hadn’t been shut down in March, April and May, so we would have had a record-breaking year, over $4 million.”
By comparison, neighboring Pensacola Beach saw its tourism development tax revenue jump just about 3% in November and Perdido Key revenue dropped 30% in November.
Rusty Branch, the community engagement director for Innisfree Hotels, which manages several Pensacola Beach hotels, said the November downturn was a direct result of pandemic fears, Hurricane Sally damage and the closure of the Three Mile Bridge — things which affected Pensacola Beach more than Navarre Beach.
“I think that, for one, (Navarre Beach) didn’t have the damage that we did, and two, they don’t have as many hotels as we do which typically cater to vacationers who aren’t staying for an extended period of time,” Branch said. “And third, most people that go to Navarre Beach, I would assume are coming from markets where they’re not getting off Interstate 10 and dropping down to come over the Three Mile Bridge, so that wouldn’t affect the historic traveler to Navarre Beach as opposed to the historic travelers to Pensacola Beach.”
Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender, who represents Pensacola Beach, said he thinks Hurricane Sally had an even bigger impact on tourism than did COVID-19.
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“I think our biggest impact right now is the damage to our hotels and infrastructure from Hurricane Sally,” he said. “We’re still getting those online, but I think we are still seeing some strong numbers in our vacation rentals in terms of condos and houses. I think we’ll see more visitors coming as we see the hotels come back online.”
So why was Navarre able to see a surge in tourism while Pensacola Beach did not?
White, the tourism director, said Navarre Beach already had a leg up in terms of its messaging and marketing because its shtick always has been distinguishing itself from other Panhandle beaches by being less built out, less crowded and overall more relaxing, a palatable message during a pandemic that necessitated social distancing and no crowds.
Additionally, the county marketed heavily its tourism destinations in the north end of the county. It pushed Adventures Unlimited, for example, with its solitary cabins, camping, river adventures, zip lines and more, as well as Coldwater Gardens in Milton with its “glamping” and treehouse accommodations.
“Trends were showing a huge uptick in people searching for those types of vacations,” White said. “Although we still primarily promoted the beach.”
Why is tourism tax important anyway?
The late surge in tourism tax revenue for Navarre Beach means that there’s more money to be spent on capital improvement needs to keep the beach clean and up-to-date for visitors.
White, for instance, plans to ask commissioners to use the tourism tax money to pay for capital equipment requests, including an $82,000 backhoe that can be used to clear sand off the streets after events like hurricanes and a $37,000 dingo, which can be used to help remove heavy debris from boardwalks and pavilions.
Pensacola Beach’s comeback might be a little tougher, Branch said. Several condominium units still are offline because of Sally damage, and the big hotel chains like Innisfree are being extra cautious with coronavirus procedures and mitigation measures.
But it’s important to get visitors back to Pensacola Beach in the new year because the visitors to Escambia County are a key part of the regional tax base.
“The ripple effects that happen when we don’t have visitors coming to the community has an impact on all sorts of things, like LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) and the amount of roads that we can pave and schools that we build and infrastructure that we have in this community,” Branch said.
“Oftentimes, those types of things are enhanced by visitors who are coming and putting very little burden on the infrastructure, but leave money here so that we can have those improvements.
“Sometimes the community will say, ‘Oh, it’s tourist season,’ and that sort of thing, but they’re a major part of our economy,” he added. “Sometimes we overlook them, but as a community we certainly hope that visitors come back.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.