Time is running out to book your vacation rental or hotel for the coming warm-weather months, however it is not because things are returning to a non-COVID “normal.”
The pandemic has put the national tourism and travel industry under siege for the last year, and Alabama’s 32 miles of white sands on the Gulf Coast have been especially hit hard.
With the climate still tough for communities and small businesses in Baldwin County that rely on visitors for their livelihood, another obstacle continues to play a part for the upcoming spring — and, perhaps, even summer — travel season. It’s also a reason why Alabamians looking for a beach getaway should act now and plan ahead.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT) is the official destination marketing organization for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, as well as the unincorporated area of Fort Morgan. The organization proudly showcases the gems that are Alabama’s Gulf beaches — a major source of tourism and revenue not just for the local area but for the state as a whole.
Beth Gendler, who is currently serving as chief operating officer of GSOBT while she transitions into the CEO role, told Yellowhammer News that Hurricane Sally’s aftermath has significantly limited the availability of rentals in the area for the spring.
“While most restaurants and attractions have reopened, there is still roughly 40% of vacation rental inventory out of service due to damage from Hurricane Sally,” she explained. “Repairs to vacation rentals and hotels have been ongoing since late September, and we expect those to start to come back over the next several months.”
That being said, it would be prudent to lock in rentals for the upcoming months now instead of waiting until the last minute.
“With reduced inventory, the early bird truly gets the worm … in this case the worm being the hotel or condo they want,” Gendler advised. “We definitely advise people to make reservations far in advance because not as many options are available to rent this spring. And as COVID vaccinations increase and people feel more comfortable traveling, we expect demand to increase as summer approaches.”
She also noted that while travel is still relatively down year-over-year so far in 2021, the outlook is encouraging compared to the worst of the pandemic.
“Occupancy for first quarter – normally our snowbird season – is down compared to last year, but that is expected with COVID still being an issue, especially for the seniors who normally stay with us for the winter,” Gendler outlined. “Right now, early March is down, but we are very much still seeing the same short booking windows we saw most all of last year (less than 30 days), so we know the second quarter could surprise us. It is very encouraging to see our local businesses ramping up their hiring for spring and summer, just like they do in normal ‘non-pandemic’ years, in anticipation of what will hopefully be a busy late spring and summer.”
At the end of the day, the past year has been extremely challenging for the industry and local communities across Alabama’s Gulf Coast. With herd immunity potentially a few months away, Alabamians have the opportunity to support their own when choosing where to travel and how to spend their money.
“The COVID pandemic has hurt a lot of destinations and so, so many small businesses,” Gendler remarked. “The travel industry as a whole has just been decimated. We really encourage Alabama residents looking for a vacation spot to strongly consider coming to their own beaches and supporting their fellow Alabamians.”
“Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two small towns with a majority of businesses being small and locally-owned, especially our restaurants and attractions. Those business owners would so appreciate the support after such a difficult year. Similar to a ‘Buy Local’ campaign, we hope Alabama residents will ‘Spend In-State’ with their vacations this year,” she concluded.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn