Sand Dollars

Posted on June 6, 2024 by Marketing and Communications
Marketing and Communications

Gulf Shores beach data-lightbox='featured'

“This is my beach. This is where I bring my family every year. This is where my parents brought me when I was a kid. And now I’m bringing my kids.”

In tourism, as in most things, trends come and go. The Alabama Gulf Coast doesn’t play that game. Its appeal rests on a glittering treasure with timeless allure.

“Our main attraction obviously is 32 miles of sugar white sand beaches,” says Kay Maghan, public relations manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.

“We hear from people all the time, ‘This is my beach. This is where I bring my family every year. This is where my parents brought me when I was a kid. And now I’m bringing my kids.’”

Lots and lots of visitors feel that way. In 2023, travel-related spending in Mobile and Baldwin counties totaled $9.7 billion, according to the Alabama Tourism Department.

That’s a whopping 41 percent of the state total. The two-county region also accounted for more than a third of the state’s travel-related employment.

“People know that we have tourism here,” says Amanda Donaldson, senior instructor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of South Alabama, “but I don’t think that they understand what it generates for our economy.”

Decades ago, tourists came primarily from the Southeast, mostly in spring and summer. Many restaurants and shops closed in winter.

Over the years, the popularity of Alabama’s beaches grew. Snowbirds started to fill winter vacancies. Lodging and attractions extended north into Foley. And the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, although an environmental disaster that threatened a long-term economic crisis, proved to be no match for the area’s appeal.

Exhaustive news coverage made the adjoining beach cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach nationally known. Promotional campaigns followed. In 2016, for example, the Alabama Tourism Department set up a beach chair on a New York City street and invited all comers to plop down, relax and dig their toes into powdery-soft Baldwin County sand — to get just a little taste of a brand known to generations of Alabamians.

Recovery money helped fund a renovation of Gulf State Park, the crown jewel of the state park system, including the construction of a full-service resort and conference center, The Lodge.

Chandra Wright, director of environmental and educational initiatives for the park, calls it “an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability.” Construction and design professionals come from around the world to check out its stylishly contemporary design.

Another of Baldwin County’s premier accommodations, the Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa in Point Clear, is the traditional queen of Alabama Gulf Coast resorts. With a historic lodge overlooking Mobile Bay, the Grand has welcomed guests since 1847.

Across the bay, Mobile County tourist draws include Dauphin Island, Bellingrath Gardens, USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park and the street parades of Carnival. Visitors can explore the local history and contributions of African Americans, including at the Africatown Heritage House.

Having so many tourism businesses next door helps recruit students to South’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Donaldson says.

One of them, Trinity Walker ’23, worked after graduation as a concierge at Walt Disney World. She’s now partnership coordinator for Visit Mobile, the city’s tourism agency.

In tourism, Walker says, “The first interaction and the last are going to be the ones they remember most vividly. You have to greet them with a smile. And then tell them that you hope to see them back soon.”

Sure enough, again and again, they return for the things they can’t find anywhere else, like those familiar sugar-white sands.

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