Tourism is the No. 1 economic driver in Florida and across the Panhandle, but locals may not be aware of the enormous impact on the local economy.

Walton County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Jay Tusa hosted the TDC's annual luncheon Oct. 27 to give a report to the community. More than 200 community stakeholders, business leaders, and dignitaries heard of the TDC's record-breaking year.

Over the past year, South Walton saw its number of visitors increase 10.2 percent from 3.6 million to almost 4 million, and those tourists spent more than $2.5 billion and had an overall economic impact of more than $3.8 billion. That represents an increase of 20 percent.

"We couldn't be more pleased with an extremely successful season and are looking forward to carrying that success into 2018," said Tusa.

Additional information shared with attendees included:

-- More than 22,000 jobs have been created by tourism in the county.

-- The average vacation group spends nearly $5,000 here.

-- Visitors pay more than 65 percent of all taxes, saving Walton County households an average of $1,070.

-- 87 percent of visitors drive here and 13 percent fly.

-- The majority of visitors are 50-65 years old, followed closely by the 35-49-year-old bracket.

-- 38 percent of Walton County's visitors make $75,000-$149,000 annually, and 32 percent make $150,000-$299,000 per year.

-- 71 percent of the county's visitors come from across the southeast as far west as Texas and as far north as North Carolina.

-- 45 percent of the TDC's annual budget goes to beach operations; 43 percent to marketing; 5 percent to sales; 4 percent to administration; and 3 percent to public relations, making up a total budget of $23 million.

-- $1 spent on tourism marketing equals $273 in visitor spending.

-- In 2017, 17,000 people came into the Visitor Center.

-- TDC staff attended 12 trade shows and reached 751 meeting planners in 2017. They attended five consumer shows and reached 29,811 consumers.

-- Public relation efforts result in South Walton's inclusion in media outlets such as Coastal Living, USA Today, Southern Living, USA Today, and Southern Living.

The TDC's Director of Communications David Demerest predicted we will continue to see growth with more Texans discovering the local area.

"I went to Texas and they are very proud of everything in Texas except their beaches," he said. "Getting people here the first time is the trick, but after that they want to come back. With new direct flights from Dallas and Houston, Texas will continue to emerge as a core market, and it is also a drive market. But that doesn't mean we will lose focus on places like Georgia and Alabama. We want to continue the demand for the area."

As the area continues to grow as a destination Demerest also predicted that South Walton will continue to be a less seasonal market.

The TDC is also in charge of beach operations, which includes beach code enforcement, beach ambassadors, beach maintenance, and beach safety programs. These units handle maintenance plus cleanup along 20 miles of beach, at eight regional beach access points, 44 neighborhood beach, bay, and lake access points, and at 16 parks at a cost of $3.1 million in destination improvements.

The county employs 67 lifeguards at the larger accesses during high season.

TDC funds also support non-profit community programs.