Tourism set to peak again at Pensacola Beach despite rising costs
It was wondered if that momentum would continue into 2022 once people got over their initial turmoil to travel, but early numbers indicate that Pensacola Beach is on track for another successful tourist season.
Visit Pensacola’s quarterly snapshot from January to March 2022 shows a 20% increase in visitors compared to 2021. Some of the main reasons included the reopening of the Pensacola Bay Bridge in 2022, a greater attraction for Pensacola special events and an increase in city publicity.
Traffic appears to be heavily regional, as 18% of visitors to Pensacola were identified as coming from another part of Florida, followed by Alabama at 11%, then Texas at 6%.
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However, as eager tourists gear up for their annual beach vacation, budget concerns for some families have also increased with each rise in gas prices.
Rick Harper, director of UWF’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement, doesn’t expect the increase to be enough to completely cancel Pensacola’s plans, largely because it’s primarily a vacation destination by car.
“The fact that we’re essentially a drive-to market means we’re going to be the net beneficiary of some of the substitution in the vacation market,” Harper said. “Families who might have considered flying from Chicago to Disney World may well find these tickets too expensive. And they can instead take the day-and-a-half trip to come to northwest Florida.
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“(They can) avoid the high cost of theme park tickets and stay, maybe, not at a hotel on the beach, but they could upgrade to a lower priced Airbnb in town that accommodates the whole family. “
Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender was also optimistic that travel to Pensacola would continue despite rising fuel costs.
“For much of our region, we’re one tank of gas away from heaven,” Bender said. “It’s cheaper for a family of three to travel by car than to fly.”
While people may not be giving up on a getaway altogether, Harper added that we could see people start cutting back on expenses while traveling, such as packing more meals at their short-term vacation rental homes.
Gloria Lemmey, owner of Citrus Door Properties of Pensacola — or as she likes to call it “hospitality’s biggest lover” — said 2022 has been an unprecedented year for Pensacola vacation rentals.
Lemmey manages a dozen properties across Pensacola with varying settings and themes, giving clients the choice of a historic home to a breezy beachfront.
“2022 has definitely changed,” Lemmey said. “The influx of AirBNB and VRBO is unprecedented…the market is flooded with short-term rentals. This is just the latest investment business model.
Lemmey said this market growth is a positive change for consumers looking to vacation in Pensacola, due to their increased options.
Buyers have the luxury of being picky with the demands of their stay, considering amenities such as pool access, walking or ocean views which all have the power to make or break the a person’s decision to book, she said.
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“Customer experiences have been improved,” she added.
The move towards vacation rentals has also allowed for more improvised getaways. Vacations that once would have been booked a year in advance are now scheduled a week or 10 days in advance.
Last-minute booking flexibility appears to be appealing to visitors, as three in five visitors said they planned their trip to Pensacola a month or less in advance, according to Visit Pensacola. As the Airbnb industry continues to grow, hotel occupancy is down 5% in Pensacola from a year ago.
Despite stiff competition, the growing number of tourists to Pensacola means “there’s enough business for all of us,” Lemmey said.
Commissioner Bender said the city gained a lot of new tourism from Florida being one of the first places to reopen while other parts of the country were still closed.
Bender said the city is also now seeing the results of increased advertising for Pensacola, which was made possible through federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Now, new developments and hotels being built on Pensacola Beach are all aimed at catering to increased tourism, Bender noted.
From a flight perspective, Erica Grancagnolo, air services development manager, said Pensacola International Airport could hit new highs for air traveler numbers in 2022.
The year 2019 attracted about 2.2 million total passengers for departing and arriving flights, while 2021 ended up surpassing 2019 at 2.4 million.
However, 2022 is on track to break records, with an estimated 1,021,518 passengers passing through so far this year and the summer tourist season just starting to hit full steam.
Looking at previous years, from January to May 2019, the number of air passengers amounted to around 921,678. In 2021, the number of passengers during the same period fell to 793,164,
Grancagnolo said the airport saw a sudden surge in passenger numbers in the summer of 2021. This year is showing high numbers, but in a more normalized trend line.
“We are most certainly expecting a busy summer season,” said Grancagnolo. “Last summer, we really experienced this pent-up COVID demand and had to make adjustments.”
Some of the changes made to Pensacola Airport over the past year have helped encourage tourism, including the addition of more than 300 new parking spaces and a new selection of nonstop flights.
2020 was also an opportunity to play around with non-stop flight deals, as the market was so unpredictable as to where people were traveling anyway.
Now, in 2022, Pensacola International Airport airlines have whittled it down to 19 scheduled nonstop flights that are frequently used and well-attended.
Vicky Reddish, Tennessee-based marketing director for FloridaPanhandle.com, has written more than 20-30 Florida travel guides and thinks Pensacola is one of the best places to visit. if you are looking to spend on a budget.
Given the city’s rich history and military ties, she always found some of the most entertaining parts of her trip to be free.
“There are some really cool things in Pensacola that don’t cost money,” Reddish said. “I totally felt like I had the whole experience, definitely stuck to a budget and got to see it all.”