Canceled collegiate spring breaks not likely to affect local tourism economy
SANTA ROSA BEACH — Colleges and universities are canceling their spring breaks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but that's not likely to appreciably affect the local economy, according to tourism officials in Walton and Okaloosa counties.
Collegiate spring break isn't a particularly large driver of the economy in the two counties.
Among the schools that have canceled their spring breaks is the University of Georgia, which instead is opting for three one-day "instructional breaks" in its spring semester schedule. Officials said the move is designed to "promote the health and safety of the University of Georgia and local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic ... ."
At the University of Alabama, spring semester classes will start Jan. 13, a week later than originally planned, and according to the school, "Spring break will be canceled for continuous learning to mitigate risks associated with travel."
Louisiana State University also recently announced the elimination of its spring break, noting that in the "interest of everyone's safety, we want to avoid long holiday breaks during which people travel and then potentially bring the virus back to campus."
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Other large schools that won't have spring break this year include the University of Tennessee, Ohio State and the University of Kentucky, among many other schools.
But according to Jennifer Adams, director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department, collegiate spring breakers aren't a large part of the county's tourism industry in the first place, in part because the county doesn't advertise itself as a collegiate spring break destination. And, she said, many short-term rental companies won't rent to groups that include people under 25 years old.
"Our spring break market is families with kids," Adams said.
That doesn't mean that some college students don't spend spring break in Okaloosa County, but most of them stay in the Crystal Beach area in the far southeastern edge of the county rather than in more central beach areas, Adams said.
If there is one concern that Adams has — and it's a minor one — it's about spring breaks being canceled for K-12 schools across the South and the rest of the country.
Those students, and their parents, are in line with the county's target market for spring break. But Adams said that one thing she's noticed is that those families now are vacationing at the beach on an almost year-round basis.
That's because many students, because of concerns about COVID-19 spreading in regular classroom settings, are working via digital hook-ups to classroom instruction and other learning tools that don't tie them to a schoolhouse. Similarly, Adams noted, their parents also are working remotely, and can do that work from anywhere, including at the beach.
In neighboring Walton County, the story is much the same in terms of who spends spring break at the beaches, according to David Demarest, communications director for the Walton County Tourist Development Council.
Walton County isn't a particularly hot spot for collegiate spring breakers, Demarest noted, given the price points for many of the accommodations along the county's 26 miles of beach. The collegiate spring breakers who do come likely stay in condominiums or vacation homes owned by their parents or other family members, and might be accompanied by those older adults, Demarest said.
Beyond that, though, one early indicator that spring break in Walton County might be on track with previous years are the early numbers on accommodations bookings. As November began, vacation bookings for March already were at 16 percent of capacity, according to KeyData, a vacation booking data company targeted at the short-term rental industry.
That's two percentage points above spring break bookings at this point last year, according to Demarest. And while last year's bookings didn't materialize into actual visitors as COVID-19-related restrictions on visiting Florida were implemented, the county nonetheless now remains on track toward the 60 percent occupancy rate that routinely comes in March, according to Demarest.
But, Demarest added, "In the time of COVID, all bets are off" in terms of the pandemic's impact on tourism. "Everybody's taking their best guess," he added of planning for spring break and the ongoing tourist season.
"We're worried about everything," Demarest said somewhat lightheartedly as he ticked off some factors that could counteract any potential losses in spring break revenues, whether from college students or families with children in K-12 schools who also routinely get a spring break from classes.
Echoing Adams' point, Demarest said, "People's schedules are more flexible these days," with parents working from home and their children attending school remotely.
Other factors that might bring more people to Northwest Florida, and could continue to bring them here through the next tourist season, are ongoing uncertainties about air travel and ocean cruises, which routinely factor into many people's vacation plans, he said.
But, Demarest cautioned, "you can't really predict too far in the future" of where the tourism economy might be in the upcoming season
However, for the immediate future, the fast-approaching holiday season is also going to be accompanied by more visitors than normally would be seen in the area, he added. In earlier interviews with the Daily News, vacation rental company owners have indicated that many families appear to be opting to spend those holidays together at the beach, where rental condominiums allow for social distancing from people outside their families.
That same dynamic is at work in Okaloosa County, according to Adams, who in June submitted a plan to Okaloosa County commissioners for extending the local tourism season.
In Walton County, Demarest said, "We're projected to have our busiest Thanksgiving and busiest Christmas ever."