CHIPLEY -- A state report shows an upward tick in tourism in Washington County.
Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation, reported tourists spend about $1.5 million more in Washington County in 2015 than in 2011. The report provides the latest available data.
The uptick in direct spending I would attribute to the economy recovering from the recession, Washington County Tourist Development Council Director Heather Lopez said Thursday afternoon. "And we have done a lot more marketing," she said, noting the TDC revamped its website and launched social media channels.
According to the report, tourists spent about $11.8 million in the county in 2015.
"For a rural county, we're doing well," Lopez said. Agritourist and ecotourist attractions, such as canoeing and trails, are experiencing higher traffic -- currently extending their operating season to include winter.
The report, produced by Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organization, shows tourism in 2015 generated $263,533 in local sales tax revenue and created 212 jobs. The same year, the food and beverage industry brought in $5.7 million, lodging $2.1 million, retail $1.8 million, recreation $900,000 and transportation $1 million.
Despite the uptick, from 2014 to 2015, direct spending by tourists saw only a slight increase, going from $11.7 million to $11.8. From 2013 to 2014, spending had increased by $500,000 and $900,000 from 2012 to 2013. The years 2011 and 2012 did not see any gains or losses in spending, the report shows.
Lopez attributed the years of incremental growth to the economy balancing out, also to a shift in the kind of tourist the area is attracting.
"People are spending more, they're vacationing more, but they're budgeting their vacations," Lopez said, in regards to the incremental growth between the 2014 and 2015 years. "They're really planning them so they're getting the maximum experience for their money."
For example, she noted, millenials demand vacations that are inexpensive, incorporating Uber and AirBnB in their stays. They are also seeking out memorable experiences over luxury vacations.
"A bonus for us: a lot of your vacationers," she added, "they're looking for an experience, not so much your theme park type vacation anymore. They want something that will bring their family closer together. Something that will effect them emotionally and spiritually."
In the absence of diversity commonly found in large metros, Lopez said the TDC will look to market the neighborhoods found in the county through "the charm of our people and our culture here."
To meet the demand, the TDC is building an agritourism trail that will highlight all local establishments tied to agriculture on a self-guided map. The trail is slated to be complete by next year. The area has recently added a heritage geocaching trail and the Orange Hill Gator Farm.
Also, Lopez said the TDC plans to focus more on user-generated content in order to illustrate to potential tourists an unruffled view of what kind of experience they can expect.
"I'm trying to shift all of our marketing and materials towards to great experiences instead of just great places," she said.