South Walton Beaches See Surge in New Year’s Holiday Visitors

January 12, 2021

Florida Vacation Rental Ban

In late March, 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis placed a ban on all Florida vacation rentals to discourage travel and control the spread of the coronavirus. With this vacation rental ban and strict lockdown measures in place across the US, the number of visitors in spring was down 48.8% from last year. A tough time for property managers as the first wave of COVID swept across the globe forcing travelers to cancel their vacations.

On May 1st, beaches were reopened and shortly before Memorial day the vacation rental ban was rescinded. Despite fears of COVID, Memorial Day showed more visitors in Walton County than the previous year and nearly 2.5 million visitors flocked to the beaches during the warm summer months, up 10.8% from last year. This increase in visitors, occupancy and ADR (average daily rate) brought a much-needed boost of optimism to the local tourism industry after a fast and harsh economic decline.

Things Were a Little Different in South Walton This NYE!

Traditionally, the winter months are the quietest and New Year in South Walton is laid back and low key. Snowbirds escaping the cold, family reunions to ring in the New Year and bonfire celebrations with friends. Yet with easy social distancing, beaches open, restaurants serving up fresh seafood and no travel advisories, curfews or quarantine requirements in place, things were a little different in South Walton this New Year!

David Demarest, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) visited Dune Allen Beach and was stunned by the unexpected influx of visitors enjoying the beaches. “It was like a spring day,” Demarest said. From Inlet Beach to Miramar Beach, it was the same all along the coastline. Traffic backed-up on Scenic Gulf Drive, families building sandcastles and friends celebrating the end of a long year with an atmosphere typical of a warm summers day.

The tours and activities sector also saw a boost in bookings after a quieter season. Capt. Brandy Miles runs a local Destin charter fishing fleet and states they are never this busy over the New Year.

“We were basically non-existent as far as trips were concerned,” she said. “Nobody was running. There was nobody here.” As the New Year approached things were different “There are way more people in town. For the fishing fleet, that meant having to turn away some fishing trips because the boats couldn’t handle the influx, she said.

Changing Travel Trends

COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work, study and travel and these emerging trends look set to stay for the near future as we closely watch the efficacy of the vaccine. This unexpected influx of visitors to South Walton is an example these trends and travel behaviors have on a vacation community.

Last Minute Bookings: We’re all a little fed up with staying home and spontaneity is at an all time high. Times are unpredictable and with constant threats of further lockdowns and travel restrictions looming, people are living in the moment which has brought on an increase in impulsive decisions and last minute bookings. The average number of days between booking and check-in has decreased substantially and with vacation rental property managers offering last-minute deals to up their occupancy, this is a trend set to stay. Tip: Promote any last-minute specials on your website, property listings and social media platforms. Travelers are looking last minute, don’t miss any opportunity. 

Work & Study: Remote digital learning and remote working has increased substantially due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kids are distance learning, business travel is down and many families are working and schooling from home. This offers flexibility to hit the road for a change of scenery with no time limitations. Tip: Promote your properties that have allocated workspaces and unlimited WiFi, update your website and property descriptions to include the latest vacation buzz words such as workcation, staycation and extended stays.

Natural Destinations: Many are still happy to hop on a plane but research shows that air travel is still down considerably and drive-to destinations are the preferred option for a vacation. Urban destinations have lost their appeal and travelers are trading busy attractions like Disneyland for sugar-white sands, and Time Square NYE celebrations for fireworks on the beach. Travelers are discovering the beauty of their own country and exploring the national parks and local attractions on their doorstep. Natural isolation, easy social distancing and a calm state of mind. Getting outside never felt so appealing! Tip: Promote your natural attractions and activities on your property listings and website, let your guests know that a stay in your vacation rental home does not mean being stuck inside. If you’re in an urban market, push the focus to nearby natural attractions.

Many vacation rental markets are seeing the impact of these changing travel trends. For South Walton it was an unexpected, but welcomed surprise and for the vacation rental industry, it’s a glimmer of hope and optimism that the travel industry is on the road to recovery.