By DOTTY NIST
Tourism leaders credit loyal visitors to Walton County’s beaches for growth in the industry locally, a contrast with the situation in many other areas of the state.
“They love this place, and they continue to come back year after year,” reported Jeff Shusterman, a marketing consultant for the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC), at the organization’s Oct. 21 annual meeting.
Shusterman estimated the number of visitors to the beaches of south Walton over the past year to be approximately three million.
TDC officials reported a five-percent increase in bed tax collections in fiscal year 2007-08. Collected on short-term rentals in south Walton County, bed taxes are a gauge of tourist spending on accommodations.
Sonny Mares, who took the helm as TDC executive director in May 2008, told annual meeting attendees that the organization would continue with research to help reach new potential visitors and prepare for “the next generation of travelers.”
Plans to rebuild the TDC’s Web site were announced, along with increased monitoring of Internet-based social communities, with an eye to developing new relationships for marketing purposes.
A partnership between the TDC and Grand Boulevard at Sandestin was announced, whereby a visitor service kiosk will be placed in the shopping center to provide guides, brochures, maps and other items to tourists.
John Gillis, ougoing TDC chairman, was recognized at the Oct. 21 meeting for his eight years’ service.
Among other honorees was renowned Grayton Beach restaurateur Johnny Earles, who received the 2009 Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award in recognition of his role as a tourism pioneer in Walton County.
Local contemporary artist and community member Michael McCarty was announced as the 2009 Artist of the Year.
Announced as well was the official addition of the new Alys Beach development, on eastern CR-30A, as the 15th beach community of the beaches of south Walton.