Tourism Tuesdays May 9, 2017

Spirits high as Ivey, others kick off state’s bicentennial celebrations

“The Mars Generation” film made at Space Camp premiers on Netflix

World’s largest travel blogger conference held in Huntsville

Alabama’s tourism, fueled by beach-bound visitors to Baldwin County, continues record pace

$240 million Poarch Creek amusement park, resort taking shape near Alabama Gulf Coast

Economic Impact report available online

Welcome Center tourism and travel week celebrations scheduled

Vacation Guide/Calendar of Events deadline is June 30

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Spirits high as Ivey, others kick off state’s bicentennial celebrations
from the article by Lawrence Specker on

The sky was blue and the mood ebullient as Gov. Kay Ivey and other officials kicked off Alabama’s bicentennial celebrations Friday evening in Mobile.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, chair of the state’s bicentennial commission, joked that out of all the cities he’d visited on Friday – Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile – the one legendary for its rain was the only one where it wasn’t raining. The Rev. Milton Saffold of Stone Street Baptist Church caught himself making a reference in his invocation to Mississippi’s state flower, and immediately had a hearty laugh at his own expense.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson good-naturedly introduced Councilman Fred Richardson as the only speaker present to actually remember the founding of the state, and Richardson in turn beamed as he observed that Stone Street Baptist was among the very few current Alabama institutions that predate statehood. And after one or two speakers mentioned how many generations their families had been in the state, historian and keynote speaker Ed Bridges pointed out that native American roots in the area went back 700 generations or more.

And Ivey, making her first appearance in Mobile since becoming governor, drew applause just for the proud emphasis she put on “my fellow Alabamians” at the beginning of her remarks.

“We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the founding of our great state, the resolve of our forefathers, and to celebrate the history of our people,” Ivey said. She went on to say that resilience and innovation were hallmarks of the state.

“It is my deep honor to stand here today as your governor and declare that the people of Alabama are people of innovation,” she said. “The people of Alabama are people of commitment, duty and resolve. The people of Alabama are people of honor, integrity and strength. The people of our great state are people of faith and courage.”

“I am honored to serve as your governor. It is a blessing from God,” Ivey concluded after listing some of the state’s historic highlights. “My fellow Alabamians, you are the reason for our sweet home Alabama … Our people are as sweet as our iced tea, and our future is as bright as the sun over the Gulf.”

Orr said that the state plans three years of bicentennial celebrations, roughly mirroring the time period from the creation of the Alabama Territory in 1817 to the designation of statehood in 1819. He said the plan has educational components and will encourage community spirit, but he also advised people to be ready for “plenty of festivals, concerts, fireworks and birthday cakes along the way.” (Some if not all of those elements were served up later Friday, at a celebration in Mobile’s Mardi Gras Park.)

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne said he’d asked the National Archives to send the state’s original 1819 constitution for display during bicentennial festivities.

Bridges, like several other speakers, noted that the waterfront location of the ceremony, outside the GulfQuest museum, gave a view of the ships being built at Austal Inc. That and other high-tech modern accomplishments in the area were “built on and growing out of the deep history that has gone before,” he said.

“From this place, right here, we see real-life illustrations of how what we are grows out of our past,” said Bridges. “The struggles and conflicts of Alabama’s history have created issues that sometimes divide us, but our history, both good and bad, is an inheritance we all share. The next two and a half years of Alabama’s bicentennial can be a wonderful time for all of us for reflecting on and learning more about the past that shaped us, for honoring and preserving those parts of our past that are worthy and good and for working together to overcome problems of the past that still continue and to successfully address the new challenges of our own era.

“Let’s have fun during this special time of remembrance, but let’s also use the precious time we have to do all we can to build a better and stronger Alabama for the future,” Bridges said. “Maybe one day, decades from now, another gathering of people here will tell stories about our generation and all that we have been able to accomplish.”

Details on bicentennial events can be found at

For the complete article please see

“The Mars Generation” film made at Space Camp premiers on Netflix
From the article by Lee Roop on

“The Mars Generation” documentary filmed largely at Space Camp in Huntsville began streaming Friday on Netflix.

Netflix describes the film as “a comprehensive look at the little-known history of mankind’s efforts to reach Mars as seen through the eyes of the teens who aspire to be the first ever to set foot on the Red Planet…”

The film opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah and was an audience favorite at multiple screenings.

To make the movie, Emmy Award-winning director Michael Barnett followed a team of teen-aged space campers through the camp’s astronaut training program.

The teens’ comments and camp experiences were interwoven with historic footage and interviews with well-known figures, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.

The movie starts with the story of the German rocket team headed by Dr. Wernher von Braun. After developing the V-2 rocket Nazi Germany used against England in World War II, the team surrendered to American forces and ended up developing rockets for the U.S. Army in Huntsville.

Bolstered by thousands of workers in Alabama and across the country, the team got America into space and eventually to the moon. But von Braun always wanted to send rockets to Mars and was planning that program when then-President Richard Nixon pulled back from space.

“The film sheds light on just how close we are to a manned mission to Mars and the incredible impact that such a journey would have on both the scientific advancement and the collective pride of the people of Earth,” Netflix says in its news release.

For the complete article please see

World’s largest travel blogger conference held in Huntsville
Huntsville hosted the 2017 TBEX North American conference last week welcoming 600 attendees and 350 travel bloggers to the city and the state.

TBEX (an acronym for Travel Blog Exchange) is the world’s largest conference for travel bloggers, journalists, online content curators, and other industry professionals. The amount of digital publicity that Huntsville and the state received through various social media channels and other online platforms was exponential. The TBEX community reaches over 300 million consumers across the globe, with a targeted audience of travelers and destination tourists.

“We were thrilled to host the 2017 TBEX North America conference. We know social media has a huge impact in today’s world, and this was a magnificent opportunity to showcase all the outstanding things Huntsville has to offer to a global audience,” said Judy Ryals, President/CEO for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

TBEX began in 2009 and has since grown to be the largest conference of its kind. Attendees are among some of the most influential names in their professions, which range from blogging and photography to radio hosting and internet video production. Although a majority of TBEX North America attendees are typically North American, a sizeable percentage of conference goers arrive from Europe and Asia as well.

Several post-conference media trips are being held this week across the state.

For more information on TBEX please see

Alabama’s tourism, fueled by beach-bound visitors to Baldwin County, continues record pace
From the article by John Sharp on

Alabama’s tourism industry continues to race ahead, leaving the 2010 BP oil spill disaster and the Great Recession in the rear-view mirror.

For the sixth year in a row, Alabama set a new record in annual tourism expenditures for 2016, and for the number of visitors coming to the state.

More than 25.8 million people visited last year, up 2.5 percent over the 25.2 million people who came in 2015.

And travelers spent more than $13.3 billion, an increase of 5.4 percent over the 2015 figures.

For the past 14 years, from 2003 to 2016, tourism expenditures in Alabama have increased a whopping 96 percent, according to data from the Alabama Tourism Department.

The numbers are compiled annually by Keivan Deravi, an economist in the School of Business at Auburn University Montgomery.

“The great news is that all areas of the state experienced growth for a variety of reasons,” said Lee Sentell, the state’s tourism director. “The fact that the economy was stronger last year in the Midwest and Southeast contributed to the increase. People just seem to have been more relaxed and wanted to reward the family with a vacation to the South.”

Baldwin’s boom
Much of the growth is linked to five counties – Baldwin, Jefferson, Madison, Mobile and Montgomery. They account for 68 percent of the total number of visitors.

Baldwin County, home to Alabama’s sugar-white sand beaches, leads in the way – by far – in tourism activity. The 6.3 million visitors to Baldwin County represented a 3.3 percent bounce from 2015, and is nearly one-fourth of all the tourists who visit Alabama each year.

“People love the beach when its blue skies and sunshine,” said Herb Malone, president/CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “But besides the growth over the summer, we have grown in our shoulder seasons, particularly our fall and early winter. … It’s a lot of dynamics at work coming together.”

In booming Baldwin, which is also Alabama’s fastest-growing county in population since the 2010 U.S. Census, Malone and others anticipate further spikes in tourism with an influx in sporting-related events in Foley, Gulf Shores and Fairhope as well as the summer opening of the OWA amusement park in Foley.

Said Sentell: “OWA is going to be a game changer for the Gulf Coast.”

Added Malone: “It will add greatly to the offerings we have for traveling guests. It will introduce a new element we haven’t had in the past.”

Baldwin and neighboring Mobile County combined represented more than 40 percent of the visitors to Alabama in 2016.

Mobile County saw a 5.5 percent increase in visitors in 2016.

“Those numbers don’t surprise me,” said David Clark, president/CEO of Visit Mobile, who has been involved in the coastal Alabama hospitality sector for 30 years. “It comes back to great leadership among coastal Alabama and the city of Mobile. It comes down to stakeholder investments over the last 10 to 15 years. It truly takes a village to attract that many visitors and continue to win.”

Jefferson’s dip
Of the five largest tourism counties, only Jefferson County reported a dip in visitors in 2016 compared to 2015. In fact, Jefferson County – which came in at No. 2 in the number of visitors in 2015 – fell behind Mobile County in 2016.

But there were some anomalies in the data. Jefferson — Alabama’s most populous county and home to the city of Birmingham — saw a 2.9 bump in travel-related spending and recorded $262,323 more in state lodging tax receipts, representing an increase of 2.9 percent from 2015.

Jefferson County’s decline was reported in hotel occupancy rates. According to the data, the county’s average occupancy rate was 62.6 percent in 2016, down from 63.6 percent in 2015.

Baldwin, Mobile, Madison and Montgomery counties reported hotel occupancy rate increases in 2016.

John Oros, president & CEO with the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the statistical dips can be attributed to a last year’s slowdown in weekday corporate travel. He said that can also be linked to the uncertainties surrounding the 2016 presidential election.

“Last year was an unusual election year and no one knew what would happen on the impact of the economy,” said Oros. “It can typically cause corporations to slightly reduce their travel until things become more clear politically.”

Oros said that despite the small dips, 2016 was a “positive for the tourism industry and travel in general throughout the United States.”

And 2017 has started off on a positive note for Jefferson County, Oros said.

“The hotel occupancy numbers are up about 1 percent and we may be back to the 2015 numbers in Birmingham and Jefferson County,” he said. “It’s been a good first quarter with sporting events and tournaments taking place. We think demand for hotels … will be extremely strong.”

Beaches soar
Other Southern states and locales that promote their beaches also enjoyed a lucrative tourism year.

Hilton Head Island, S.C., near Charleston, saw a 6.1 percent increase in its hotel and resort occupancy rate, to 64 percent.

In Mississippi, that state’s three Gulf Coast counties attracted 6.2 million visitors last year, up 8 percent over 2015. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, punctuated with the casino industry, recorded an 8 percent increase in non-casino revenues in 2016, according to Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The three Mississippi counties – Hancock, Harrison and Jackson – employed 30,000 people in the leisure and hospitality sector, representing an increase by more than 2,400 jobs since 2012.

Baldwin County, according the Alabama Tourism Department’s analysis, employs more than 49,600 people in direct and indirect travel-related industries.

Baldwin County accounts for 27.7 percent of Alabama’s overall travel-related employment. Jefferson County is second at 15.3 percent, and Mobile is third at 9.2 percent.

For the complete article please see

$240 million Poarch Creek amusement park, resort taking shape near Alabama Gulf Coast
From the article by Robert DeWitt on the Alabama News Center:

Families driving to the Alabama Gulf Coast on their vacations this year will notice a new landmark at the corner of County Road 20 and the Foley Beach Express.

One thousand construction workers have labored since late 2016 to turn what was a dirt field into the $240 million OWA, a family-oriented resort developed by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which is scheduled for a midsummer opening. (OWA is an Indian word meaning “big water.”)

The resort adjoins Foley’s $40 million sports complex, is a couple of blocks from the Tanger Outlets and 7 miles from the beaches.

“The idea was to create a destination where people could stay, shop and enjoy entertainment,” said Kristin Hellmich, OWA’s director of marketing and public relations.

Phase I of the project includes a 14-acre amusement park with 21 rides, a retail shopping and entertainment center called the Warehouse District and a 150-room Marriott Towneplace Suites hotel. A 14-acre lake with fountains, boat rentals and an island with a 400-seat amphitheater will be at the heart of the development.

Foley’s sports complex includes 16 turf grass fields for soccer, football and lacrosse that opened last year and a 90,000-square-foot event center for volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and other indoor events that will open this summer.

The OWA hotel will be the first to open, coming on line in June. The amusement park is scheduled to open in midsummer and the retail shopping and entertainment center set to open in phases beginning in August and running through early fall.

OWA officials expect the sports complex and OWA together to generate 3 million visitors a year. Not all of those will be new visitors to the area. The development has a good base from which to draw.

“We already have over 6 million visitors that are built in that come here to visit along coastal Alabama,” Hellmich said. “These visitors typically come in the spring and summer months.”

Sports tourism in Foley generates 1 million visitors a year and helps give the area more of a year-round draw. Last year, during October and November, with nothing on the OWA property, the sports complex generated an average of 8,000 to 10,000 visitors every weekend.

“If you couple a first-class destination with the Tanger Outlets and the beaches … I really believe the future is bright,” said Don Staley, Foley executive director of sports. While operating the sports complex, Staley has seen the impact adjoining attractions can have on each other. “Oftentimes mom will drop dad off to watch the kids and then come back several hours later with the back of that SUV filled with shopping bags from the Tanger Outlets,” Staley said. What he calls the “Tanger effect” will only be multiplied with a major attraction like OWA on the adjoining property, he said.

Staley believes OWA can help give the sports complex an edge over competing venues. He hopes to offer OWA packages with tournaments to promote Foley’s complex.

Hellmich is optimistic about the future of sports tourism and its impact on OWA. Many of the groups that came last year have signed multiyear contracts, she said. “All of the teams and the tournament organizers that have come so far, they love the area, they love the climate, they love the convenience of being in one location,” Hellmich said.

The sports complex’s first year was a learning experience, Staley said, and the feedback with regard to improvements centered on two things. First, the facility needed more parking areas. But he was also told repeatedly that more on-site hotels would be a plus. A percentage of sports tourism visitors will always want to stay at the beach. However, other visitors would prefer to stay on site and drive to the beach a couple of times during their stay, Staley said. That was particularly true for events booked during the summer and on holiday weekends when the rates for coastal accommodations are at their peak.

OWA might assist there. The project’s master plan has spots on the property for six more hotels along with an RV park and a water park. The developers want to see how successful the first phase is before making a commitment to additional phases, Hellmich said. “It could become a place where people decide to make a vacation and stay here four or five days and visit the beach while they are staying in the market,” Hellmich said.

OWA officials don’t yet know what the average visitor will spend there. But they do know that people who vacation in the Gulf Shores market spend roughly the same amount of money on vacation as visitors to Destin, Florida; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “They’re open to spending,” Hellmich said. “They’re open to having a good experience. And they’re truly looking for a destination that offers something all in one location like the markets at Myrtle Beach, Pigeon Forge and Destin.”

Currently in the Gulf Shores market, visitors who want to dine, shop or go to an entertainment venue must drive. OWA will be different. “Everything can be done in one location,” Hellmich said. “So, that automatically gives us an immediate attraction to a lot of visitors coming here because they get in the car and stay here for several hours and enjoy many different events and experiences.”

OWA officials haven’t yet settled on the prices for day passes or annual passes. But Hellmich said it will be priced competitively with other area entertainment attractions. “It’ll be something a family can do and enjoy more than one time a year,” Hellmich said.

For the complete article please see

Economic Impact report available online
The complete Alabama Travel Industry Economic Impact Report for 2016 with a county-by-county breakdown is available on our industry site at

Travelers spent more than $13.3 billion in Alabama last year
More than 25 million travelers spent more than $13.3 billion and were responsible for 179,507 jobs last year in the state, according to a report conducted for the Alabama Tourism Department. That figure represents a 5.4% increase in traveler spending on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transportation.

“The tourism numbers for 2016 bring great economic news for Alabama,” state tourism director Lee Sentell said.  “The dollars spent on tourism creates jobs, it grows local economies and generates needed tax revenues. Travel spending in Alabama has doubled over the previous 14 years.”
Without the dollars collected by the tourism industry each household in the state would end up paying $444 in additional taxes, according to the Auburn University Montgomery report by economist Dr. Keivan Deravi.

The five counties in which tourists spent the most are: Baldwin County with $4.2 billion in travel-related spending, Jefferson County with $1.9 billion, Madison County with $1.2 billion, Mobile County with $1.1 billion and Montgomery County with $814 million.

Welcome Center tourism and travel week celebrations scheduled
The eight state welcome centers will celebrate National Tourism and Travel Week on different dates during the month of May to give tourism industry partners the opportunity to attend several of the events.  The goal of the events is to help kick-off the vacation season and show appreciation to guests stopping at the centers by offering special promotions to local attractions, hotels and restaurants.

The welcome centers and days of the remaining celebrations are: Baldwin Welcome Center- May 9, Houston Welcome Center- May 11, Sumter Welcome Center -May 11, Ardmore Welcome Center- May 18, Cleburne Welcome Center- May 24, DeKalb Welcome Center- May 25, Grand Bay Welcome Center- May 26.  Each celebration will take place from 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on the date scheduled.

Vacation Guide/Calendar of Events deadline is June 30
The deadline for submitting items for the printed version of the Alabama Tourism Vacation Guide and Calendar of Events is June 30.  Use the Alabama Tourism industry partners website at to enter and manage events/attractions in the database. If you need assistance please contact Pam Smith at 334-353-4541 or email at

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
Members of the state tourism industry can promote their event or location on the state tourism website by creating a free account using the partner portal.  Setting up an account allows your information to be displayed on for visitors to see and explore. In one month alone, received 150,000 visitors, 30,000 of whom then connected to a partner site.

Examples of the type of locations that can sign-up include attractions, accommodations, restaurants, antique stores, boutique shops, outfitters, shopping destinations, farmers markets, amphitheaters and concert halls. Events include festivals, performances, concerts, plays, exhibits, and tournaments.

If you don’t already have a partner account- the sign up is easy.  Instructions and more information is available at


Tourism Tuesdays is a free electronic newsletter produced by the Alabama Tourism Department. It contains news about the state tourism department and the Alabama tourism industry.

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Alabama Tourism Department