Pensacola tourism is off to a strong start for 2016, but not all Gulf Coast communities are in the same boat. New numbers show that tourism in Panama City Beach — long a destination for spring breakers — has dropped sharply since new restrictions were put in place by officials last year.
Citing escalating problems with guns, drugs, and other issues related to the city’s spring break crowds, officials voted unanimously last May to ban alcohol on public beaches during March 2016. The new rules have certainly helped curtail the city’s spring break problems, but at a steep cost. Area tourism officials reported last week that revenues from the beach’s tourist development tax, or bed tax, fell 41 percent last month. Dan Rowe, the director of Bay County’s Tourist Development Council, said the decline in Spring Break business meant a $40 million hit to the city’s economy.
Fueled by the traditionally large spring break crowds, March was Panama City Beach’s third-strongest month in 2015, behind only the top summer months of June and July. But the city’s alcohol crackdown appears to have driven many visitors elsewhere, with bed tax collections falling to $1.2 million this March, down from $2 million last year.
Escambia County officials also made changes last year to alcohol rules on Pensacola Beach, banning open containers on the boardwalk, in parking lots, and in other public areas. With the exception of a small “family area” just west of the Pensacola Beach Pier, though, booze is still legal on the beaches themselves. The changes don’t appear to have impacted tourism, however: Visit Pensacola officials said last week that bed tax collections are up by more than 15 percent, with visitors to the Pensacola Bay Area in 2015 spending more than $849 million.
At its next meeting on May 10, Bay County’s Tourist Development Council is set to discuss ways to beef up the area’s summer marketing campaigns, in hopes of making up for the lost business in March.