Tourism Tuesday April 21, 2020

2019 record traveler expenditures near $17 billion

The Alabama Tourism Department to hold a virtual board meeting

Return to ‘normal’ must be gradual

How the BP Spill may help Gulf coast businesses cope with COVID-19

Hidden Alabama gardens are like a portal straight to Japan

Maximize PPP Forgiveness Webinar

ATD Targets Earth Day to Officially Roll Out the Alabama Year of Natural Wonders

Alabama Tourism Partner Pointer


2019 record traveler expenditures near $17 billion

Twenty-eight million tourists spent a record $16.8 billion while vacationing in Alabama in 2019, crediting the arrival of more than a million additional guests who spent a billion dollars more than tourists the previous year.

For the first time, guests paid more than one billion dollars in taxes to state and local governments, dollars which saved the average state family an estimated $537 a year in taxes. With growth at nearly 8 percent, it was the third consecutive year that travel expenditures grew by more than a billion dollars.

The travel and hospitality industry employed more than 200,000 workers for the first time in 2019. The economic impact analysis using a model developed by Dr. Keivan Deravi demonstrated that some 140,706 direct jobs led to the creation of 64,906 additional or indirect jobs. The analysis said that every $116,120 in travel industry spending creates one direct job in Alabama.

Seven counties accounted for 75 percent of all travel-generated employment, the study found. They are Baldwin (54,262 in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores), Jefferson (32,628 in Birmingham, Hoover), Madison (18,970 in Huntsville, Madison), Mobile (18,658 in Mobile, Dauphin Island), Montgomery (14,438 in Montgomery), Tuscaloosa (9,028 in Tuscaloosa, Northport) and ) Lee (7,076 in Auburn, Opelika).

For the first time, expenditures in Baldwin County exceed the five-billion-dollar mark, with an increase of 9 percent over the previous year to $5.2 billion.

Birmingham and Jefferson County registered a 5.5 percent increase in expenditures, with sales totaling $2.41 billion.

With a 15.2 percent growth, the Huntsville and Madison County area achieved the state’s highest percentage increase to reach $1.62 billion in sales.

Mobile County registered a 4 percent increase to exceed $1.3 billion in revenue for the first time.

Driven by a. 5.6 percent growth of visitation, Montgomery County topped the billion-dollar mark for the first time with $1.025 billion in revenue.

Tuscaloosa County achieved a 5.5 percent growth to approach the $700 million level for the first time.

Auburn and Lee County grew by 11.2 percent in expenditures to exceed $522 million for the first time.

Sentell said the state’s tourists’ expenditures have grown by 85 percent since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill a decade ago, setting records during each of the succeeding nine years. He predicted the current shutdown of many tourist destinations caused by the virus pandemic will rebound soon.

Grouped by region, expenditures in the Gulf Coast accounted for 40 percent of the state’s $16.6 billion travel industry. The gulf region climbed 8 percent to $6.65 billion dollars. Wages for the 75,000 part-time and full-time workers in the region climbed 4.3 percent to $2.23 billion.

The state’s central region, which includes Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Calhoun County among others, captured 24 percent of the state’s volume and was second in importance. Tourists there spent $4 billion, an increase of 5 percent. The central region boasted 56,455 workers whose earnings grew by nearly 10 percent to total $1.47 billion.

The northern tier of counties, from Muscle Shoals to Fort Payne, captured 19 percent of state expenditures, some $3.2 billion, which was a growth of 9.7 percent. Some 37,644 wage earners took in almost a billion dollars, an increase of 8.4 percent.

Guests visiting the southern tier of counties excluding the Gulf Coast, which includes Montgomery and Dothan, spent 9.8 percent more than in the past year to total $2.84 billion, or 17 percent of the statewide total. Some 39,415 workers earned more than a billion dollars, a growth of 9 percent.

The annual report said that the travel industry’s 7.8 percent growth outpaced the 1.7 percent growth in the Alabama Domestic Product and the 2.3 percent increase in services.

The Alabama Tourism Department to hold a virtual board meeting 
Because of the need to keep a proper distance between participants during this unusual period, the Alabama Tourism Department will hold its first virtual board meeting on Wednesday, April 29 at 2 p.m., chair Judy Ryals says.

This replaces the ATD board meeting that had been scheduled for this Thursday. This will also replace the Tuesday call-in meeting for DMOs, ATD director Lee Sentell says.

For the first time, the department will utilize the ZOOM video technology that has become popular in recent weeks. ATD’s JoJo Terry will send notices to local tourism representatives so people in addition to ATD Board Member may listen in on the call

Return to ‘normal’ must be gradual
From the article by Kim Chandler on

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Friday that the reopening of the state’s economy must be a gradual and cautious process to avoid a resurgence of coronavirus cases while a state task force urged the immediate reopening of some businesses.

The Republican governor is facing a push by some businesses to be allowed to reopen while balancing health concerns and worries that limited testing has not fully tracked the state of the virus’s spread in Alabama. The current closures and stay-home order lasts through April 30, and the governor is expected to announce a decision in the coming days.

“Consistent with what we’ve been saying all along, the president made it clear that the return to ‘normal’ won’t be a quick or simple process. We will need to see declining cases – and stronger testing – over at least 14-days – to make certain we don’t see a return in the spike up of the infection,” Ivey said in a statement.

A state task force on Friday recommended allowing small retailers, restaurants and other businesses to reopen, a recommendation that comes as small businesses say they faced an uneven playing field since big box stores have been allowed to stay open during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, in a news conference announcing the report, noted that more than 300,000 unemployment claims have been filed in the last 30 days, more than double what was filed in all of 2019.

“Obviously, this virus is deadly. It’s dangerous. But our committee believes there is a way to safely reopen the Alabama economy and get people working responsibly,” Ainsworth said.

The decision to reopen ultimately rests with State Health Officer Scott Harris and Ivey. Ivey thanked the group for its work and said she would also be receiving a report from the congressional delegation and mayors.

“No good idea will be tossed aside, but even as we look at every way we can to reopen the economy, we’re going to need to continue to maintain social distancing and other health measures to ensure the virus doesn’t flare up again,” Ivey said.

Others repeated calls to reopen businesses.

A barber in Inverness on Friday backed off plans to reopen his shop in defiance of the state health order after speaking with local elected officials and concerns that his customers could face fines.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and the Gulf Shores City Council recommended opening beaches and small businesses beginning in May.

President Donald Trump has shifted responsibilities to the states on reopening, but the White House recommended a phased-in opening that states will move through after 14 days of a downward trajectory in new cases.

However, there have been concerns raised about the adequacy of testing in Alabama and other places.

The Alabama Department of Public Health said that about 38,000 tests have been conducted in Alabama, a state with a population of about 4.8 million.

The number of confirmed cases in Alabama grew to more than 4,400 Friday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, with more than 140 reported deaths in patients who tested positive for the virus.

The state has said that more than 500 patients and employees in long-term care facilities have tested positive for the virus.

Alabama health officials announced Friday that the Alabama National Guard would help disinfect nursing homes that have COVID-19 positive residents.

State health officials said specially trained and equipped National Guard teams will disinfect nursing homes.

“Alabama nursing home caregivers have been working hard since February to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This service will greatly supplement our infection control efforts and allow us to focus on caring for our residents,” said Brandon Farmer, president, and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

For the complete article please see

How the BP Spill may help Gulf coast businesses cope with COVID-19 
From the article by Guy Busby on

The beaches along Alabama’s coast remain closed due to the outbreak of Coronavirus. The sight of empty hotels, restaurants, and tourist destinations in Mobile and Baldwin is eerily similar to ten years ago. That’s when the BP Oil spill shut down Alabama’s lucrative coastal tourism industry. There were concerns that the 2010 spill would devastate tourism for years. Instead, the industry roared back the next year and has been setting records since then. That has some coastal residents optimistic in the face of COVID-19.

Ten years ago, Alabama Gulf Coast residents were looking forward to a busy tourist season. Spring break crowds filled beaches. The months ahead looked great. A few days later, the sands were empty. Signs posted on the beach warned of health hazards. These last few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak have brought back memories of 2010 for some who were here then.

“Ten years and we’re going through something like this again and stuff. It’s amazing,” says Trish Kerr. She and her family have run The Sand Box souvenir store on Dauphin Island since 1974. On a recent afternoon, she looked past the “Closed” sign on her door at a quiet beach highway.

“I’m not trying to dwell on what’s happening now,” she says. “It’s just very ironic that it seems like it’s 10 years and we’re going through it again, but in a totally different way.”

In 2010, people could go on the beaches, but the public reaction kept most visitors away.

“It hit us in May and we did not have a good summer,” says Kerr. “I would say it was probably two years before we really kicked back into shape. You’ve got to understand too, we had just gotten over Katrina. We were just starting to get the island going again and then the BP thing hit and it took us a year to a year and a half to convince people that you could eat the seafood. You could swim in the water. You could go on the beach and not get tar on your feet.”

Gulf Coast residents are used to dealing with storms like Hurricane Katrina and other potential threats, but the 2010 oil spill was something new.

“When we woke up one day and found out that there was oil headed toward our beaches. We first didn’t have a clue what to do because we’d never experienced something like that,” says Herb Malone. He’s director of Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism and the local convention and visitors bureau.

“However, to our benefit, all of us, all of our organizations, all governmental organizations, all businesses practically, have a plan, a crisis plan because of the inevitable hurricane that’s going to come in the future,” says Malone. “We really pulled that out and literally started to scratch out hurricane and put in the name BP Oil Spill.”

Within days, local officials, including Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, were meeting with community leaders to start planning strategy. The group became known officially at the Coastal Resiliency Coalition. Most people just called it the War Room. For a long time, no one knew what to expect.

“We had an expectation that we were going to lose the summer,” says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism. “The great fear at that time was for the summer of 2010 that families from Michigan and Indiana and Ohio would say ‘let’s go to the mountains because we’ve never been to the mountains in Tennessee and we were afraid that they would get there and say ‘oh, gosh, this is great, let’s do this again next summer,” says Sentell.

People did come back. Tourism numbers were up 22 1⁄2 percent on the coast in 2011, which meant a 12 percent jump in statewide totals. Lee Sentell says that even before the spill was over, the tourist industry was working to bring visitors back to Alabama beaches.

“Instead of waiting for recovery, we did a TV commercial,” says Sentell. “So we knew it was not a question of if we were going to recover or when it was going to get cleaned up, but to be prepared for when it did.”

Malone says they’re already making similar plans for this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The competition’s going to more intense this time, however.

“We also know that every one of our competitors, including every cruise line and everybody in the mountains and everywhere else is competing for people to come visit,” says Malone. “The competition is going to be much higher because they’ll all be coming out at one time.”

Then and now, businesses have had to scramble and find ways to stay afloat since the COVID-19 situation is under control.

“Business was very bad, but I am of the opinion that the restaurant business is an athletic event and you’ve got to win,” says Richard Schwartz. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay open and whatever.”

Schwartz’s company owns several restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. In 2010, business came to a stop within days of the spill. He went to a staging area at Perdido Pass, standing outside a locked fence trying to get business providing food to cleanup crews.

“We stood there and had people come out,” Schwartz recalls. “It was hot – hot, hot, hot. And I stood there and we must have looked like idiots and this guy stopped and said what are y’all doing out here?”

A supervisor ordered 110 lunches for the next day. That led to other businesses.

“In those two days by getting out of the car and standing in the hot sun, we got hooked up doing catering for, it turned out to be, a whole lot of people over a long period of time,” says Schwartz. “So, that’s really what saved our company. It’s all a question of, I don’t know, luck. I’d rather be lucky than good. It was an experience that really made you understand how important… I don’t know, you can’t quit.”

Ten years later, the impact of the Coronavirus was sudden and unexpected again.
“I was looking forward to things booming and it did pretty good,” he says. “Right after Valentine’s Day, business was moving right along and up until we had to shut down, it was moving right along. But we had to shut down because that’s what we were ordered to do and that’s what we did.”

Schwartz says businesses are again adapting, serving take-out food and preparing “Meals on Wheels” for a local church. He says business will recover, but things won’t be the same right away.

“When it first happened, we had to remove tables and lower the density in the restaurant and we did that and I told them yesterday that when we have to come back, we’re not going to be, people are not going to want to sit as tight as they have been sitting, so we’re going to not make them do that,” he says. “It’s part of what we do. I’m glad to do that. Happy. I enjoy doing it. It’s what we do, we feed people.”

On Dauphin Island, Trish Kerr says the experience of the oil spill and hurricanes will help Alabama’s Gulf Coast weather this storm. “I think it affected the people on the island more, the residents because we weren’t allowed to go places that were on our island and they were shut off to us and it angered a lot of people and stuff, but we got through it,” says Kerr. “We’ll get through this one. It’s just, we’re a very resilient island. We really are and the people all stick together and, you know, that’s what makes a small community great to live in.”

For the complete article please see businesses-cope-covid-19

Hidden Alabama gardens are like a portal straight to Japan
From the article by Kirsten Poletis on

Walking along the gravel paths, you can almost hear it — the gentle twang of a shamisen or the lilting notes of a flute. The wind rustles through pink cherry blossoms, stirring the pond of koi fish as you cross over a red bridge leading you to the traditional tea house. At the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama, their immersive Japanese Gardens are enough to make you totally forget you’re not even in The Land of the Rising Sun!

If you’re looking to take an exotic trip this summer but aren’t quite feeling the hassle of actually traveling, spending tons of money, and having to plan extensively in advance to venture abroad, then a visit to these gardens in Birmingham is the perfect compromise.

The Japanese Gardens section of the grounds was opened in 1967 by the Japanese Ambassador of the U.S. They house 7.5 acres of authentic of koi, bamboo forests, ginkgo trees, and even cherry blossoms.

You’ll enter the gardens through a bright red torii gate and leave Alabama behind as you travel across the world — even if it’s just for a few hours.

The entrance path is lined with gorgeous pink cherry blossoms that you can catch in full bloom in the early spring months. The gardens even maintain a unique beauty in the cold winter season too.

The whole site is an interwoven collection of several smaller gardens, each displaying a collection of Japanese flora and architecture.

The meditative Karesansui garden evokes calm and peace with its composition of boulders artistically placed in patterns of raked sand. And according to the Birmingham Gardens’ website, the traditional 16th-century Sukiya-style teahouse is one of less than a dozen in the U.S.

The center is pulled together by seven beautiful waterfalls that flow into an equal number of pools, eventually leading into Long Life Lake. Why seven? It’s to represent the seven virtues of bushido, the samurai creed.

You may find yourself growing more pensive as you walk, and for good reason. The arching Moon Bridge, as well as the twists and turns of The Bridge of Accomplishment, are meant to symbolize the ups, downs, and navigation of life and spans the entirety of the lake.

Forget the passport and expensive plane tickets, and enjoy your trip to this tiny slice of Japan tucked away in Alabama!

For the complete article please see do/us/al/birmingham/birmingham-botanical-gardens-will-take-you-on-an-immersive-japanese- adventure

Maximize PPP Forgiveness Webinar

The Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association (ARHA) has partnered with the Alabama Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to present a webinar regarding strategies and suggestions for the deployment of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds. The free webinar is Wed., April 22, 2pm – 3:30pm 

Registration deadline is 1:25pm on April 22Click to Register for the webinar.

ATD Targets Earth Day to Officially Roll Out the Alabama Year of Natural Wonders

Montgomery, Ala. (April 21, 2020) —  Although the tourism economy has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama Tourism Department is continuing to implement cost-conscious initiatives to maintain awareness and encourage tourists to visit the state once the pandemic restrictions have eased.

With 2020 being dedicated as “The Alabama Year of Natural Wonders,” the state tourism department has released a list of 20 of the state’s most impressive, yet accessible, natural wonders, including rivers, hiking trails, caves, waterfalls and beaches. To accompany this campaign, the department has developed and published editorial features about the natural wonders in the 2020 Alabama Vacation Guide, available in both print and digital editions. With the resources available, travelers can begin on Earth Day to find inspiration for their future travel to Alabama’s naturally wonderful outdoors.

The 20 for 2020 list of Alabama Natural Wonders include the following: Gulf Coast Beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach; Mount Cheaha, Delta; Cathedral Caverns, Woodville; The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Spanish Fort; Dismals Canyon, Phil Campbell; Alabama’s Natural Bridge, Natural Bridge; Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, Mobile and Baldwin counties; Cahaba Lilies, West Blocton; DeSoto Caverns, Childersburg; Pinhoti Trail, East Alabama; Rickwood Caverns, Warrior; Wetumpka Crater, Wetumpka; Little River Canyon, Fort Payne; Sipsey Wilderness, Northwest Alabama; Red Mountain and Park, Birmingham; Noccalula Falls, Gadsden; Walls of Jericho Trail, Estillfork; Bankhead National Forest, Double Springs; Cahaba River, Central Alabama; White Cliffs of Epes, Epes.

In addition to the resources devoted to Alabama’s natural wonders, the tourism department has released its updated Partner Portal so tourism industry partners can regularly update their location and event listings for web, app and social content to ensure potential travelers always have the most current information. The department also introduced its redesigned Road Trips mobile app, allowing visitors to build, share and take their own road trip from among all that Alabama has to offer through one user-friendly app. This redesigned app now includes content from the Alabama BBQ Trail and the ever-popular 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.

To drive interest in the state, the department recently sponsored two social media contests encouraging past visitors to share their travel photos. Each of the winners was awarded a return trip to Alabama including a natural wonder attraction. Visitors also have the opportunity to create their own free Photo ALbum to reminisce on their Alabama travel memories until they can visit again.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming guests when the time is right,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “We hope that through these initiatives, visitors can begin envisioning their trip to Alabama now, so they can enjoy it when it is again safe to travel.”

To discover even more of the vacation-planning resources available, visit Alabama.Travel or follow the Alabama Tourism Department on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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