PANAMA CITY BEACH — From The News Herald…A regional marketing group wants to ramp up efforts to bring 5 million new airline passengers into northwest Florida’s three major airports over the next 10 years, boosting the area’s vital hospitality industry.
Tourism pros and airport officials say the goal is ambitious but doable, despite an FAA estimate that U.S. air travel will increase only 2.2 percent per year through 2025. The region currently receives about 2.5 million yearly travelers through its three regional airports at Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola. Buddy Runnels, chairman of Coastal Vision 3000, a nonprofit group of business, tourist and civic organizations, wants to triple that number.
“We want to move Northwest Florida from a regional destination to a national and international destination,” Runnels said. “We feel confident this is a realistic goal.” The view is echoed by both Dan Rowe, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council, and Ken Paine, Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council chairman.
“I think that’s an ambitious goal, a lofty goal,” said Paine, saying the area was only “a couple of low-cost carriers away from attaining it.”
‘Extend our reach’
Rowe said the 5 million-passenger target is aggressive. But with a new Panama City-Bay County International Airport expected to open near West Bay in May 2010, the goal is not unrealistic, he added. “We believe the new airport will help extend our reach,” Rowe said.
Bay County officials are hopeful the airport, with its longer 10,000-foot runway, will attract both low-cost carriers and international flights, helping funnel visitors into the entire region. Runnels said the new airport could impact the economic growth of Northwest Florida as much as the Fort Myers area was influenced by the Southeast Florida International Airport, through which 8 million passengers passed in 2007.
The typical international traveler will stay in an area for 14 to 17 days, touring and sampling the region rather than staying in one town, Runnels said. Current marketing efforts need to move beyond the provincial and welcome a more regional view, he said. “With the Internet, the new traveler views his visits differently,” Runnels said. “We want to embrace what the traveler is looking for. As we embrace our expanding markets, we will be working with the airports.”
Total air visitors to Florida declined by 3.1 percent in 2008 and fell 11.4 percent in the first quarter of recession-roiled 2009, according to the Web site visitflorida.org. The Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport recorded 678,736 passengers through June, a drop of 16.14 percent. Greg Donovan, director of the Northwest Florida Regional Airport, said his facility has experienced a 3.91-percent decline in passenger traffic this year through June, with 386,986 passengers so far. Randy Curtis, executive director of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport, said the airport recorded 160,379 passengers though June 2009, down 7.39 percent from last year.
Seeking new tourists
Without committing themselves to specific numbers, both airport pros see opportunities in the years ahead. “We believe our area has some tremendous attributes,” Donovan said. “We expect some great growth opportunities.” Curtis agreed. “I think it is definitely possible that there will be opportunities for an increase,” especially with a new and larger airport, he said.
To stem the slowdown in air traffic, the Bay County Commission recently increased its tourism “bed tax” on short-term rentals from 3 cents to 5 cents, with $2.2 million yearly from the fifth cent going exclusively to encouraging air traffic into the new airport. Walton County also recently raised its bed tax by a half-cent, with the additional funds dedicated to promoting the area to new national and international tourism markets.
Currently, Okaloosa County has Florida’s second-highest number of drive-in visitors, Paine said, with Bay County in third. Tourists driving from nearby states such as Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee make up about 88 percent of yearly Panama City Beach visitors, according to Rowe. Bay County tourism officials already are gearing up for a marketing campaign aimed at taking advantage of the new airport. “It’s very important for us not to lose focus of our drive customers,” Rowe said. “But we are very engaged in the regional marketing efforts going on. We believe we will be able to increase visitation by encouraging airline passengers.”
With the surge in condo development over the last five years, the area has the capacity to handle additional tourism, Rowe said. In fact, new tourists are needed just to uphold the status quo. “I think we (the region) can definitely sustain an additional 5 million tourists,” Rowe said.
Donovan agreed. “Most people don’t know that we (the region) have more accommodations for rent than New York City,” he said. “We expect some great growth opportunities.”
Any thoughts or ideas for the PCB marketing effort?