Gas prices now dropping, but the higher prices are not affecting Pensacola-area tourism
Higher prices for fuel — and for most everything else — do not appear to be deterring those coming to the Gulf Coast for vacation, either by land or by air.
Visitation numbers are holding steady this year compared to 2021, which was the best year on record, according to Visit Pensacola, the city’s tourism arm. President and CEO Darien Schaefer says that's not too shabby for a “drive-to” destination.
“Our drive distance has generally been 350 miles, but the last couple of years it’s actually expanded to 500 miles,” said Schaefer. “And so, knowing that all those prices are higher, we may see fewer trips that somebody may normally take in a year. But when they take that trip, they might extend it a day or two longer than they normally would.”
A number of vacationers, it’s safe to say, are looking at how to stretch that tourist dollar. Schaefer says there are options.
“Our primary draw — the beaches — is a primary example of a way to spend a day — and can do it very affordably,” he said. “On a tank of gas you’re going to see people paying $30-$50 more one way; it’s an increase but it’s probably not enough to prevent people from getting out and enjoying life.”
Those on the road in Florida are getting a break. The state average has now declined for four consecutive weeks, a total of 47 cents per gallon as of July 11, according to Triple-A South. That includes a 15-cent drop last week, to $4.42 per gallon. It’s expected to drop to below $4.30 later in the week.
Some of the major local attractions have been — and likely will be again — those aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, if, and when, it reopens to the public.
“The Naval Aviation Museum, Lighthouse, or Barrancas Cemetery — all know that they have our support, and hope that the waiver will be put back into place and access will be reopened,” Schaefer said. “Because it’s an amazing attraction and one that we get asked about all the time.”
The base reopened to visitors for one Saturday last month, welcoming nearly 3,000 visitors. But NAS commander Capt. Tim Shashaty, says that was unrelated to any permanent opening.
The base has been closed to most of the public since the terrorist attack in December 2019. One issue to be resolved before any reopening is a set timeline.
“We have to go through the whole process of requesting a waiver again; and when you go through that process, there’s a lot of questions that are being asked,” Shashaty. “How do you do this? What about that? It just takes time to go through that process.”
Up to now, the conversation has centered on drive-to; but air travelers to and from Pensacola International Airport seem to be holding steady, according to Airport Director Matt Coughlin.
“Last year, we exceeded 2.1 million total passengers, which was a record for us — that’s the latest,” said Coughlin. “This year so far we’re up about 10% over last year. But, recently we’ve seen a leveling off.”
The rising cost of aviation fuel is just the tip of the iceberg of challenges for the airline industry. Another is keeping cockpits and cabins occupied. And the airlines appear to have brought that upon themselves through pandemic-based personnel cuts.
“And that included aircrew, pilots; and resulted in early retirements, incentives to leave,” said Coughlin. “So when traffic comes back, they try to revamp and try to get to the pre-pandemic numbers is very difficult. There's long lead times for training, and to get that workforce back in place can be difficult.”
One mode of transportation that seems to be lost in the shuffle is the train. Talks have started — and stopped — over the years about returning Pensacola to Amtrak’s routes.
Florida welcomed 36 million total visitors between January and March of this year, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency. That’s the third consecutive quarter that overall visitation has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.