Flashback: Resort Revenue Nightmare
Hurricane Ivan moves across Alabama Sept. 16, 2004, after landfall at Gulf Shores.
Photo from NASA’s Terra satellite
Through the summer of 2004, tourism business on the Alabama Gulf Coast was on a steady rise, with visitor counts increasing 10 to 12 percent a year. And up until September, 2004 they were headed for another record.
That’s when a natural spoiler cycled into the works.
Hurricane Ivan was the 10th most powerful hurricane to ever come out of the Atlantic, and it cut across Grenada, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and the western tip of Cuba before making a beeline across the Gulf of Mexico into Gulf Shores, Alabama. Damages in the U.S. were estimated at $22.2 billion, making it the country’s fifth costliest hurricane.
In our March 2006 issue of Business Alabama, we reported on efforts to restart the Alabama coastal economy two years after the storm.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, the year after Ivan, did little damage to Gulf Shores, but Katrina’s tragedy had an impact that turned off travel all along the Gulf.
For Alabama coastal cities — which get 73 percent of their revenue from tourism — it was survival stakes. “We are fueled by lodging tax,” said Mike Foster, president of marketing for the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As we reported that March, all winter the GCCVB poured on a high-stakes advertising campaign — its annual budget enhanced by contributions from the state tourism department and the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Although the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail’s Magnolia Grove site in Mobile and the Grand Hotel in Point Clear were the Trail’s only holdings to catch damage from Katrina, RTJ visitor numbers were down across the state. RSA-owned Raycom Media donated $2 million worth of 30-second spots in 45 markets to get the message out that Alabama’s resorts were open for business.
The first critical sign of normalcy in beach travel — which accounts for 27 percent of state tourist revenue — was Gulf Shores’ annual National Shrimp Festival, which followed in October.
Attendance at the 2006 festival was “spectacular,” said Lee Sentell, director of the state tourism department. He described the mood as “celebratory. It was like the end of a long nightmare.”
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.