By DOTTY NIST
The economic impact of tourists was over $4.4 billion in 2017, according to a report recently presented to the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC).
The report was presented by Philip Downs, of TDC research consultants Downs & St. Germain Research, as part of the council’s regular bimonthly meeting on April 3 at the South Walton Annex.
Over four million visitors were reported for the year. Downs also reported that over two-thirds of the revenue going into Walton County government “comes from our visitors,” a $33 million net benefit, and that over 20,000 jobs are created as a result of the tourists visiting the county. One job in Walton County is created for every 184 visitors, it was noted.
People who enjoy eating out in Walton County can also thank the tourists. According to Downs, three out of four restaurants in existence in the county would not be here if not for tourism.
Another finding was that three-fourths of the retail spending done in Walton County was done by tourists.
Part of the $4.4+ billion economic impact was almost $3 billion in direct expenditures by tourists, according to Downs’ findings.
Downs noted that $23,754,442 was collected in Tourist Development Tax (TDT), also known as bed taxes, in 2017. This was viewed as a significant achievement, with Walton County ranking tenth in the state for TDC collections while it ranks 41st in the state among counties for population.
“You have no idea how good your data looks compared with other areas,” Downs told the council members. “Things are rosy,” he said, adding, “95 percent of our visitors will return.”
Downs credited Walton County for working to pursue “quality” visitation, i.e., tourists who will spend more per person, in contrast with neighboring areas who are more focused on just putting “heads in beds.” The report indicated that a typical travel party (averaging about five people) spent $889 per day in Walton County, with accommodations accounting for $383 of that, and with a total of $5,122 spent by the typical travel party on their trip.
The report showed that a large majority of visitors (86 percent) continue to travel to the area by automobile.
Asked about risks of increasing tourism, Downs responded that Walton County can take comfort in the aforementioned rate of return for visitors. He emphasized the importance of striving to keep the visitor experience a good one, attention to providing value for the travel dollar, and focusing on customer service.
Downs’ report includes much additional information related to tourism for the year. It may be viewed in its entirety at the link: https://tinyurl.com/yb8vcyem.
Later during the meeting, TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa was asked by a board member how concerned the TDC should be about HB 631, the “Possession of Real Property” bill, becoming law in the wake of the 2018 legislative session.
To take effect on July 1, HB 631 will invalidate Walton County’s existing customary use ordinance, which recognizes and protects use of the beach on privately-owned property by tourists and residents for limited recreational activities. The new law sets forth a notification and court complaint process for local governments to follow in order for customary use to be affirmed or reaffirmed.
Tusa responded that a lot of people are concerned about the new law, and should be. He reported that Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes was currently working on moving forward with customary use. Tusa voiced hope that those efforts would be successful.
Clay Adkinson, TDC attorney, explained that the affirmation procedure for customary use requires a judicial determination and that this may be a matter of litigation. He therefore cautioned against much comment on the issue by officials.
Adkinson confirmed that the county was preparing to move forward in pursuing customary use. He pledged to speak to Noyes and invite her to attend the TDC’s upcoming strategic planning sessions and give an update on the matter.
Additional information on those sessions will be forthcoming.