Tourism had taken a hold on Tallapoosa County’s character and was well on its way to be a huge contributor to its economic and business success for 2020.
Data for tourism, including lodging, restaurants, retail, auto and transportation, has been escalating toward new heights for the past few years and reached record-breaking levels in 2019 statewide.
According to a press release by the Alabama Tourism Department, 28 million tourists spent a record of $16.8 billion while vacationing in Alabama last year, crediting the arrival of more than a million additional guests who spent a billion more dollars than the previous year.
This hopeful growth has come to a screeching halt due to restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic; however, local leaders aren’t as fearful of a devastating impact as some may think.
“Looking at the overall state, around our area it looks like we had growth across the board, except for a few close-by counties,” Tallapoosa County Tourism director Sandra Fuller said. “I think county wide people are focused on tourism and there is a lot of effort going into it.”
Alexander City Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ed Collari said he’s heard a mixed bag of comments in terms of local businesses hurting and doing well.
“Overall, I think Alabama will be hurt significantly,” he said. “But (Lake Martin) seems to be the place people want to social distance and I think that may help balance out what we’re going to lose in hotel stays, lodging and restaurants being closed.”
Collari emphasized the community rallying around local businesses as a factor to their survival during the pandemic.
“The community recognizes the importance to support our businesses and are going out of their way to do so,” Collari said. “Hotels might be hurt right now but hardware stores, grocery stores, their numbers are at the best I’ve seen.”
The swelling of the lake population occurred much earlier this season, which may offset some economic losses in other areas as well.
“We have seen traffic we don’t normally see until June,” Russell Lands On Lake Martin vice president Roger Holliday said. “A lot of people have seen the lake as an opportunity to get out of higher-density areas.”
Holliday said Russell Lands’ restaurants are actually doing quite well with curbside and takeout offerings as they slowly ease into opening dine-in options.
“Restaurants are getting creamed because they’re doing a lot of takeout,” Holliday said. “As they begin to open up under the new guidelines, it’s actually going to hurt in terms of revenue because you can’t do 50% capacity dining at the same rate they’ve been doing takeout.”
While Holliday would not categorize Russell Lands as tourism per se, second-home owners and guests have certainly added to the human traffic on the lake.
“In terms of tourism meaning getting out of town, we’ve obviously seen huge numbers this spring versus anything we’ve seen before,” Holliday said. “The fact that we are a drive-thru destination is an advantage for us.”
Fuller echoed this statement and said the tourism organizations she spoke to agree road travel will be the main source of transportation for a while and being in rural Alabama is a huge benefit of that.
“We don’t get a lot of people flying into this area,” Fuller said. “We’ll have an in-driving-distance market and that’s who we’ll target to attract.”
Tallapoosa County saw a 10.8% increase in travel-related earnings from 2018 to 2019 and a 7.5% increase in travel-related expenditures.
“The additional jobs and tax revenue tourism brings into our community, we can take those dollars and use them for infrastructure and many more things,” Fuller said. “With the loss we had on jobs over the years, we’ve done a great job at bringing that back up.”
The Alabama Tourism Department stated travel and hospitality industries employed more than 200,000 workers for the first-time last year and it is estimated 140,706 direct jobs led to the creation of 64,906 additional or indirect jobs statewide.
State economist Dr. Keivan Deravi developed the economic impact analysis model the tourism department used. That analysis said every $116,120 in travel industry spending creates one direct job in Alabama.
It’s no hidden secret the main driver of revenue and population is Lake Martin and it seems to be the place people are flocking to social distance.
“This is not data driven but observation, the lake is running at peak Fourth of July holiday season in April and May,” Collari said.
According to the Alabama Tourism Department, the central region of Alabama captured 24% of the state’s tourists’ expenditures and boasted 56,455 workers whose earnings grew by nearly 10% to a total of $1.47 billion.
Fishing tournaments attract thousands to Lake Martin each year and while those anglers are in town, they spend money elsewhere.
“Last year, there were very few weekends with no tournaments,” Fuller said. “And now we have a local owner of OGS and as a recreation group they do a great job bringing some outside tournaments in. Unfortunately right now that’s not happening but it continues to be a conversation and a huge draw.”
Wind Creek State Park hosts a majority of these tournaments and also has numerous attractions — including horseback riding, zip lining, mini golf and more — that draw in visitors and campers.
“When I talked to (superintendent) Bruce (Adams) at Wind Creek, he said numbers have been up with activities and a lot of people are comfortable coming in their own RVs but still getting out,” Fuller said. “They’ve had pretty consistent high numbers for two to three weeks. There are low numbers in other areas but certainly not there.”
Russell Lands maintains a steady wedding business throughout the year as well and Holliday said while he’s unsure of the number of weddings canceled or postponed, there will be a new normal for wedding receptions for the time being.
“We didn’t stick anyone with a deposit of course,” Holliday said. “But the typical deal now seems to be brides planning a reception for their first anniversary and still getting married in a small service with some family.”
A lot of future wedding plans are still up in the air as everyone navigates the unknown of the future.
Entertainment options have been altered as these organizations wait Gov. Kay Ivey’s new guidelines May 22.
“We canceled RxR Fest (over Memorial Day weekend),” Holliday said. “We just wouldn’t have time to plan it if the governor gave the OK for entertainment venues. We’re using an abundance of caution and canceled Friday on the Green’s first weekends but haven’t yet canceled through June assuming there will be more guidance.”
The chamber postponed Jazz Fest to August for similar fear of social distancing issues but knew the tourism draw was too high to cancel it altogether.
According to tourism strategies organizations, May to June is when more people will start traveling and the next wave of opened businesses will likely include attractions and waterparks, summer team sports, small outdoor events and the leisure domestic fly market.
“If we did not have this pandemic, we are already hitting record highs the state as a whole, I believe we would have continued to grow,” Fuller said. “I’m still optimistic that numbers will still look good when all is said and done.”