Alabama\'s tourism, fueled by beach-bound visitors to Baldwin County, continues record pace

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By John Sharp | jsharp@al.com

Alabama's tourism industry continues to race ahead, leaving the 2010 BP oil spill disaster and the Great Recession in the rear-view mirror.

For the sixth year in a row, Alabama set a new record in annual tourism expenditures for 2016, and for the number of visitors coming to the state.

More than 25.8 million people visited last year, up 2.5 percent over the 25.2 million people who came in 2015.

And travelers spent more than $13.3 billion, an increase of 5.4 percent over the 2015 figures.

For the past 14 years, from 2003 to 2016, tourism expenditures in Alabama have increased a whopping 96 percent, according to data from the Alabama Tourism Department.

The numbers are compiled annually by Keivan Deravi, an economist in the School of Business at Auburn University Montgomery.

“The great news is that all areas of the state experienced growth for a variety of reasons,” said Lee Sentell, the state's tourism director. “The fact that the economy was stronger last year in the Midwest and Southeast contributed to the increase. People just seem to have been more relaxed and wanted to reward the family with a vacation to the South.”

Baldwin’s boom

Much of the growth is linked to five counties - Baldwin, Jefferson, Madison, Mobile and Montgomery. They account for 68 percent of the total number of visitors.

Baldwin County, home to Alabama's sugar-white sand beaches, leads in the way - by far - in tourism activity. The 6.3 million visitors to Baldwin County represented a 3.3 percent bounce from 2015, and is nearly one-fourth of all the tourists who visit Alabama each year.

“People love the beach when its blue skies and sunshine,” said Herb Malone, president/CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, the tourism arm of coastal Alabama. “But besides the growth over the summer, we have grown in our shoulder seasons, particularly our fall and early winter. ... It’s a lot of dynamics at work coming together.”

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