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Walton’s tourism numbers are encouraging signs

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Early numbers on occupancy rates in Walton County lodging for the week surrounding the Memorial Day holiday suggest there may have been more visitors in the county for the holiday weekend this year than last year, when the coronavirus pandemic was not a factor in vacation decisions.

And in neighboring Okaloosa County, occupancy rates anecdotally have been in the 90% to 92% range recently, according to Jennifer Adams, director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council.

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Those numbers have tourism officials in both counties turning at least somewhat optimistic about the tourism business for the remainder of the traditional summer season. They’re also looking ahead to the possibility that people who have opted to reschedule their vacations in light of the pandemic might extend the tourism season beyond the summer months.

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Concerns regarding transmission of COVID-19, prompted a number of state and local actions, from lengthy local beach closures to an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that shut down short-term vacation rental properties for weeks.

Okaloosa and Walton counties reopened their beaches on May 1, and the vacation rental ban was rescinded shortly before the Memorial Day weekend.

Conceding that “there are a lot of moving parts here,” Adams went on to say, “I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand.”

On Tuesday, Adams submitted a plan for extending the local tourism season to Okaloosa County commissioners. Subsequently, and with a nod to the ongoing presence of the coronavirus across the nation, Adams said, “I would hope that we could salvage this summer, safely.”

In both counties, the vast majority of vacation lodgings are in short-term vacation rental housing, both in the condominiums that line the beaches and nearby roads and the third-party options offered by companies like Airbnb and Vrbo.

For the week of May 23 in Walton County, which encompassed the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the occupancy rate was 80 percent, according to David Demarest, communications director for the Walton County Tourist Development Council.

That’s slightly lower than the 81% occupancy rate for the week around last year’s Memorial Day weekend, but in the intervening months, the number of available accommodations increased from 13,675 units to 14,594 units, making it likely that there actually were more people visiting Walton County for this year’s Memorial Day holiday than last year’s holiday.

Projections for the upcoming week show a 77 percent occupancy rate for Walton County, the same as for the same time period last year.

“I’m glad we’re kind of getting back to a normal routine,” Jay Tusa, executive director of the Walton County Tourist Development Council, said at Tuesday’s TDC meeting in Freeport.

The good news has come just in time, according to Tusa, who said that as of May 1, 42 pecent of the county’s tourism-related businesses had indicated that they could only last for another month or two.

“When we opened things back up, it was a good decision,” Tusa said.

Later in the meeting, Demarest, while noting the good news, cautioned council members that with regard to COVID-19, “that can change in a second.”

But, he added, “As long as we don’t get any bad news, I anticipate that people are going to do their best to have their vacation.”