Family Businesses Anchor Coastal Tourism Recovery

Lodging tax revenue has risen more than 40 percent since the 2009-2010 downturn in Gulf Coast tourism following the recession and BP oil spill, according to figures released in late January by the Alabama Tourism Department.

After increasing every year from 2003 through 2008, the lodging tax contribution to the state’s general fund dropped in 2009 due to the recession, then stayed flat in 2010 following the oil spill. But it rose from $33.2 million in 2010 to $37.6 million in 2011, and has continued to increase every year since. The contribution from 2015 is projected to be a record $46.7 million, a 42 percent increase from the 2009-10 average and nearly double the 2003 value of $24.2 million.

While the lodging tax revenue is not broken down by region, a significant portion of it comes from beach tourism. The Gulf Coast is easily the number one tourist destination in the state, attracting nearly 6 million visitors last year, according to the Alabama Tourism Department. The next closest attraction in terms of visitors was the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville with 658, 000.

“A large portion of the 93-percent increase in lodging taxes since 2003 can definitely be attributed to beach tourism, ” Alabama Tourism Department Director Lee Sentell says. “The Gulf Shores-Orange Beach area is the magnet that pulls Midwesterners through the whole state and gives everybody a shot at them.

“So I credit a lot of this increase to the Gulf Coast. Not only did they survive the oil spill, but I think everybody is surprised at how quickly the recovery came.”

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Sentell believes one of the main reasons the Gulf Coast bounced back so quickly is because of the area’s large number of independent family-owned businesses, whose owners were reluctant to leave what they consider to be their home.

“A lot of these businesses have been there for two and three generations and have roots in the ground, ” Sentell says. “If a large portion of the businesses had been national franchises, I think a lot of them would have moved out. But these family businesses said, ‘We have no other place to go. This is where we live. This is who we are.’

“So they made it through the oil spill and were still there the next year. I think having so many local businesses is why they’ve been so successful.”

Text by Cary Estes

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