Alachua County on track for record tourism year

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, home to the UF Gators football team, is one of the largest tourism draws for home games annually.

From UF athletics to the county’s natural springs, visitors stop by Alachua County for a variety of reasons—some just to see family and friends. And all that traffic has put the county on track for its highest-ever tourism year. 

From January to April, reported lodging sales in Alachua County drew in $55 million. If those numbers hold steady, the county would beat even pre-pandemic numbers. 

Already post-COVID tourism has posted strong numbers. According to Visit Gainesville, Alachua County reports that from March 2021 to March 2022 lodging sales topped $142 million, compared to the pre-pandemic benchmark of $118 million.

Since 2010, the area has experienced steady growth with a 133% increase in lodging sales. 

Photo by Seth Johnson The new Alachua County Agriculture and Equestrian Center Arena in Newberry is a major draw for the area.

The county saw an expected drop in 2020 because of the pandemic, but Jessica Hurov, tourism development manager for the county, described the tourism situation as the strongest ever with a bright horizon. 

“There was a lot of pent up demand that got created during that time, and especially in the early days of coming out of the pandemic, people were taking to the roads in their cars for getaways,” Hurov said in a phone interview. 

Lodging capacity has also increased. Hurov said 12 hotels have opened in the past five years, bringing a 25% increase in rooms. Right now, the county has 5,810 rooms at 64 properties. 

According to Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, those properties had a 74% occupancy rate in April—above industry average and showing high visitation. And a new downtown hotel, next to the Hippodrome, plans to open in August.

Hurov said not all the growth comes from traditional visiting tourists. 

“There’s a lot of what I think of as unseen tourism in the county,” Hurov said. 

. Courtesy Alachua County Jessica Hurov

This unseen tourism could be family members visiting and staying in a hotel. She said business visits and construction workers staying for months in long-term lodging also qualify.

The increase in visits means more money spent at restaurants, stores, gas stations, parks and more. For Alachua County, increased tourism also means additional money through the Tourism Development Tax. 

The 5% tax applies to anyone paying for lodging at a hotel, motel or bed and breakfast for six months or less. In 2019, Alachua County earned $5.52 million through the tax—its best year. But after looking at the numbers for the first four months, the county is on track to break the $6 million mark. 

Hurov said the more important number might be the overall lodging sales along with the estimated visitor spending—$841 million in 2019. Those numbers show the economic fuel brought in by visitors. 

Looking forward, Hurov said the county has a lot coming. Officials plan for the sports complex at Celebration Pointe to open in January 2023. The county estimates the facility will produce 116,000 annual hotel room nights and $610,000 in the tourism tax. 

Fast Facts:
– 133% increase in lodgings sales from 2010 to 2019—from $47,340,000 to $110,560,000
– 2.1 million guest staying overnight in hotels, motels and B&Bs in 2019
– Visitors spent $841 million in 2019, according to Florida’s Bureau of Economic Analysis
– 72.9% of visitors very likely to return to Alachua County
– 17% growth in visitor spending over the past 4 years. 
– 25% increase in available lodging rooms in the past 4 years. 
– 5,810 rooms at 64 properties

Alachua County uses the tax to fund tourism growth—from advertising to new facilities and grants. The tourism tax helped fund the sports center as well as the new equestrian center in Newberry which is already completely booked for January through May 2023. 

Hurov said that every destination must consider its capacity—both for the sake of tourists and the year-round residents. 

“There’s a nice, comfortable window of visitation where our community is reaping economic benefits and also just the cultural benefits of meeting people from other places and exposing them to what we do here without being overrun,” Hurov said. 

If growth outstrips tourism infrastructure, Hurov said visitors will be left unsatisfied. Currently, 73% of visitors say they are highly likely to return, according to Visit Gainesville, Alachua County. 

Hurov said the county considers these factors when creating new facilities. She points to the new sports center as an example. A new parking garage is under construction to support the facility along with dedicated bus routes to Butler Plaza and hotels to avoid more traffic. 

“I always like to say, you know, it’s easy to draw someone to come here once, but we want to be able to deliver on a brand promise of what we’re advertising when they get here,” Hurov said. 

Photo by Seth Johnson The sports complex, located in Celebration Pointe near Bass Pro Shops, is projected to open in January 2023 and will add additional tourism dollars to Alachua County.
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