SOUTH WALTON, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - It's no secret South Walton is becoming more popular, and now that tourism season is over, officials say the area has seen a healthy growth, bringing in nearly 4 million visitors.
"Every time we come down here there are more condos, more houses, more people. Which I'm not sure I like but it's a wonderful place to visit," said Gail Kimball.
She and her husband Noah said they have been visiting the area for years and South Walton is their favorite place to go.
"I know I probably shouldn't be telling you this... don't tell anybody," Gail said. "I love the beach and it's the closest beach to Memphis, which is where we live, and of course, it's the most beautiful beach in the world because of the white sand and the blue water."
"Its great," Noah added. "We've been lots of places and there is nothing like the sand."
It's because of people like the Kimballs that Visit South Walton officials say the area is booming.
"So over the last year, we saw occupancy rates go up about 1.5 percent, but the room rates have gone up about 4.5 percent, which shows we are really satisfying a demand. When demand increases, those prices can go up and that's when you get the visitors that will spend money to really support your economy," said Visit South Walton Director of Communications, David Demarest.
"I have friends who live here and basically what they are telling me and you can see it is, that it's becoming a year-round tourist attraction and not just summer, fall, spring," Gail said.
From fall 2015 to summer 2017, officials said tourism has gone up by more than 10 percent, creating a total of $3.7 billion in economic impact and contributing to more than 65 percent of the area's taxes.
"So direct spending is money they take out of their bank accounts wherever they live and leave it right here in our community. It's [as] if I give you that money," Demarest explained. "Total economic impact is after I've given you that money, you're spending it to support tourism, you're buying what you need to sell, you are paying other workers with it."
This impact is what helps create the nearly 22,000 jobs around tourism.
"For tourism jobs, you're not just talking about working at a restaurant. Even the jobs that support the building and infrastructure, those can also be supported directly by tourism," Demarest said.
All those short-term visitors fund the TDC through a four percent bed tax or tourist development tax.
According to Visit South Walton statistics, every dollar spent on tourism marketing out of the TDC's $23 million budget, creates $273 in visitors spending.
"Tourism is the number one economic driver for South Walton and Walton County. If you live in Walton County, your life is benefitted by tourism," Demarest said.
That includes helping fund beach operations, such as code enforcement, beach ambassadors, beach maintenance, and the beach safety program along the 20 miles of beach in South Walton.
"One thing we've got here in Walton County is an abundance of natural beauty so the TDC does a lot to make sure those beaches stay clean, that you have nice beach access to that as well. We keep our eye on that," Demarest explained.
Which is part of the reason the Kimballs say the love this area so much.
"The atmosphere is wonderful, there are some great restaurants, so much to do, so much to see. But if you don't want to do anything at all but sit on the beach, it's a happy place," Gail said. "This is so familiar to me, it's like a second home and that's why I keep coming back. Everybody is friendly, it's just an easy place to be for vacation and that's what you want when you're on vacation right? You don't want it to be hard."
"We're just continuing to spread the word about South Walton. There are lots of parts of the world that don't know about us yet but we feel that once they've seen us, whether through our marketing or through the great events or word of mouth, even social media, that once they've found us they will want to come back," Demarest said.
Tourism officials said the average vacation group spends nearly $5,000 a year when visiting South Walton.