While Mexico Beach and Panama City tourism dropped significantly, the core of the tourist industry on Panama City Beach avoided major losses.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — The Bay County tourism industry, like the Gulf beachfront itself, dodged a potentially lethal bullet when Hurricane Michael made landfall a year ago.

“A year out of a Category 5 storm, our visitors are pretty much back,” said Dan Rowe, president of the county’s Tourist Development Council.

While Mexico Beach lost most of its tourists because of the catastrophic destruction from the winds and storm surge, and visitation in Panama City dropped significantly due to storm-damaged hotels, the core of the tourist industry on the Beach avoided major losses and was able to launch a full spring and summer tourist season on March 1, Rowe said.

During the TDC’s monthly meeting on Tuesday, tax expert Tyler Miller reported that other areas of Bay County still show lingering effects from the storm with tourism tax revenues mirroring the degree of storm destruction. Panama City sustained a 23% decline largely due to storm-damaged hotels and other
lodgings, and Mexico Beach tourism revenue was down 95%, Miller said.
However, the August tourism tax revenue along the 18.5-mile Gulf beachfront, which largely evaded destruction, was down only 2.08% from 2018.

“We were pretty lucky,” agreed veteran restaurateur Jack Bishop, who owns two Capt. Jack’s Family Buffet restaurants on the Beach. His eatery at 12628 Front Beach Road reopened right after the storm. While the second restaurant, further east at 8208 Thomas Drive, suffered several hundred thousand dollars in damage, it too was back in business by mid-February, he said.

In addition to eluding severe losses, the Beach generated an unanticipated windfall — $48 million in lodging revenue and $2.4 million in additional bed tax income — when tourist accommodations opened their doors to county residents displaced by storm damage to their homes. They were soon joined by an army of first responders, followed by contractors, who swarmed across the Hathaway Bridge to fill thousands of rental units that traditionally fall empty during the winter months.

“The contractors definitely helped fill the gaps” in tourist lodgings, said Andy Phillips, a TDC director and owner of Inspire Vacation Properties. “From the tourism impact we didn’t feel that big an impact from the storm.”

With Tyndall Air Force Base flattened by the hurricane and other county military facilities suffering damage that forced a reduction in operations, the tourism became the primary engine of the area’s economy.

“Immediately after the storm, the Beach was the lifeblood of Bay County,” Rowe said.

It hasn’t been a totally smooth road for the Beach, however. Tourist facilities on the eastern end of the “island” suffered moderate to serious damage, including the newly renamed Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort, which only reopened in mid-August after 10 months. A number of older structures along Front Beach Road, including the Boar’s Head restaurant and Spinnakers, remain shuttered a full year after the hurricane.

Bishop said while the tourist season brought back the annual influx of tourists, he and other small businesses on the Beach have had to struggle with a worker shortage caused mainly by the storm’s toll on affordable housing in Bay County. Of his 60 employees, five were displaced by Michael and never came back because they could not find a place to live, Bishop said.

Rowe said that while the Beach’s tourist base is “pretty much back” now that a year has passed, preliminary records indicate that the summer tourist season will have fallen short of normal projections. “The summer has been hard,” he admitted.

“The numbers have not been record-breaking,” Rowe said. One factor that dampened the tourism figures was the prolonged rough surf conditions in June that led to double red flags flying nonstop during five of six days, and the mid-July passage of Tropical Storm (later Hurricane) Barry, which forced the closure of the Gulf beachfront to swimmers for another four days. “That killed the bookings,” Rowe said of the harsh surf episodes, “It stopped the phones from ringing.”

But all in all, Rowe said, Hurricane Michael dented, but did not break, Bay County’s reputation as a family-friendly beach destination.

“We were able to continue telling our story and people kept coming to the beach,” Rowe said. “It’s still a huge visitor economy and the fundamentals are still strong.”