On a morning in early June, kayakers at Florida’s iconic Silver Springs State Park in Ocala offered a glimpse of tourism trends expected throughout Marion County this summer.
The majority of visitors were from various cities around Florida, including Tampa and Gainesville. A few were from the Southeast, including Alabama and Louisiana. One international visitor told a Star-Banner photographer she traveled from New Zealand.
Many in the tourism industry locally and in Florida suggest these trends of visitors staying closer to home may be the norm for summer travel as rising gas prices and other expenses draw Floridians to Ocala due to its central location in the state and growing number of attractions.
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Whether they are repeat visitors from nearby or travelers coming to Ocala for the first time from far away, Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau Tourism Development Director Loretta Shaffer says summer travelers will contribute to a record year for tourism in Marion County.
Visitor spending had an economic impact of more than $1 billion annually, as reported from July 2020 to June 2021, and Shaffer says they are on track for a record this year.
"That's really incredible, and we're looking forward to continuing that momentum and riding on the coattails of an incredible winter for tourism,” Shaffer said. “We did a Visit Florida campaign that allows for us to really position ourselves as an in-state market.”
Ocala is seeing customers emerge from newer markets like Texas. Nearby states Alabama and Georgia are also a focus, and international visits are growing slightly, but in-state travelers are still key. Shaffer’s team has been targeting Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Naples and Fort Myers for marketing campaigns.
The bureau's Visitor Tracking Report from July to September 2020 showed 55% of visitors came from Florida and 12% from the Southeast.
“I think we're definitely getting return visitors because they love our community, they love the people,” Shaffer said. “But I think by telling a story and getting an even stronger reach it allows for us to cultivate and bring new guests.”
She expects steady or increased visitation throughout the year despite high gas prices.
"We're so centrally located, and even though average daily rates across the state are very high and even in Marion County, we really believe that we're going to continue to generate awareness by way of these amazing assets,” Shaffer said.
High gas prices will alter, not cancel trips
Others echoed that while gas prices affect aspects of trips, they won’t have a big impact on whether trips are taken.
“I’d say that higher gas prices are certainly influencing drivers in many ways. Oftentimes, we’re seeing that people are not willing to sacrifice their trips, but are willing to adjust their plans,” Mark Jenkins, public relations manager for The Auto Club Group in Florida, an AAA affiliate, wrote in an email.
According to a May report from AAA, 51% of Floridians plan to travel this summer. Of those travelers, 82% plan to take a road trip of 50 miles or more despite higher gas prices, but 68% plan to adjust their travel habits to offset the price.
Some plan to take fewer trips (24%), travel closer to home (24%), take shorter trips (23%), stay at a less expensive hotel (18%) or budget more for gas and less for other expenses (16%).
“So it’s likely you’ll see an increase of regional travel, with those looking to vacation within the state, to cut down on travel costs,” Jenkins wrote.
The state’s tourism agency, Visit Florida, expects similar outcomes.
“When gas prices have increased in the past, it did not have much of an impact on visitation numbers, and just caused some visitors to reduce spending on other aspects of their vacation,” Leslie Pearsall, senior manager of communications, wrote in an email.
A recent survey by FamilyDestinationsGuide.com also suggests that road trippers are altering their plans.
“Floridians surveyed say their usual summer road trips will effectively be cut by around half (by 52%). Usually each average road trip is 568 miles; however, this summer the average is expected to be 275 miles,” a press release stated.
The Canyons offers ziplining, kayaking and horseback tours
Traci Walker, owner and president of the Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park in Ocala, says they are expecting more “staycations” this summer.
“We're hoping to draw more people from within the state and people that have heard about us but haven't made it up to see us yet,” she said. “We're hoping that now is going to be the time.”
The attraction offers the highest, fastest and longest ziplines in Florida – including one that is 1,150 feet – as well as horseback riding, kayaking and gem mining.
"People are always looking for that hidden gem and really don't believe that there are canyons in Florida,” she said. “There's just nowhere else where you can zipline through a canyon, I mean, especially in Florida.”
Coming off of COVID-19 restrictions and popularity of outdoor activities, 2021 was the best year yet for for the company, though they are busier than usual for this time of year too.
"I think COVID has allowed for us to shine a light on Marion County,” Shaffer said. “I think just most people are learning about these lovely and traditional and nostalgic attractions that have always positioned Marion County.”
The Canyons, which is family owned and operated, is in its 11th year. Walker has seen Ocala become a more popular destination in that time despite always being centrally located and right off the highway. She calls it a “fabulous outdoor Mecca.”
“We have everything,” she said. “We have springs. We have WEC. We have more and more attractions. We have us (The Canyons). We have lots and lots of things to do outdoors.”
WEC, FAST and Rotary Sportsplex bring millions from summer sporting events
WEC (the World Equestrian Center) has also helped transform Marion County’s identity as an equine and tourism destination.
Justin Garner, director of hotel and hospitality operations, expects their numbers to be up for the summer based on entries for their hunter/jumper Summer Series, which runs through mid-August. Shows are held Wednesdays through Sundays with Grand Prix events on Saturdays and some Fridays.
WEC has gotten media interest from many statewide and national publications lately for its facilities and grand Equestrian Hotel, which visitors may use as a base to explore Ocala.
“We're seeing a lot of demand for weekends, which a lot of times is leisure travel, people just coming for the weekend, hang out, watch horses and hopefully get out and do some other stuff,” Garner said.
The center has other draws, such as its Stirrups fine dining restaurant and live music three nights a week at the Yellow Pony.
Garner says visitors are coming from other parts of Florida such as Tampa and Gainesville for day trips, as well as the Southeast for longer stays.
Hotel booking and stall registrations are both higher than this time last year during its first summer.
“We're excited to get back into our Summer Series and start seeing the big daily visitor counts,” Garner said.
Also at WEC, the North American Reining Stakes from July 30 to Aug. 7 will have an economic impact of nearly $3.3 million, the visitor bureau estimates.
Other sporting events, particularly baseball tournaments, have a large impact.
The Cal Ripken B Team State Championships at the Rotary Sportsplex in Ocala last weekend anticipated an impact of over $1.2 million. The Cal Ripken Rookie World Series and 10 and under State Championship later in the summer are also estimated to have impacts of nearly $1.3 million and over $300,000.
“Those are all events that we continue to go out of market and bring back to our community whether it's sporting events, equestrian events, group events that we've never been able to host,” Shaffer said.
"Being able to move the needle and build our shoulder season, fill the hotels, put people in the restaurants and get people shopping and spending money around Marion County, it's extremely exciting,” she said.
Outdoor classics like local springs still a draw
Marion County draws many visitors to its classic outdoor attractions like horseback riding with local outfitters, camping in the Ocala National Forest and swimming in Rainbow Springs, Juniper Springs, Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs and Alexander Springs.
Shaffer says many tourists look for “the green and the blue,” meaning an outdoor activity followed by a dip in the water to cool off.
Glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs State Park, which have been around since the 1870s, are sure to be on most Ocala to-do lists too. The park has the nation’s largest spring, hiking and biking trails, canoe and kayak rentals, cabin rentals, a campground, a pioneer village and the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center.
Silver Springs State Park and Rainbow Springs State Park, which both feature first-magnitude springs, are among Florida’s most popular state parks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta wrote in an email.
“Given their popularity and that there has been increased visitation across all of our state parks throughout the current fiscal year, both parks are expecting busy summers,” she said.
Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, which has the fourth-highest flow rate among all of Florida, is a popular destination for swimming, kayaking, tubing and camping.
While Silver Springs visitation typically peaks in March and April, Rainbow Springs sees the highest attendance in May and June.
FDEP also has a new program called “The Real Florida Reader,” which Kuchta hopes will increase visitation.
“This program is a partnership between Florida State Parks and the Department of State’s Division of Libraries that is geared toward expanding outdoor access for all Floridians,” she wrote. “The Real Florida Reader program allows visitors to public libraries across the state to “check out” a Real Florida Reader pass – the same way they would check out a book – and receive complimentary, one-day admission to one of the participating 170 participating state parks.
The program runs through Sept. 12.
Restaurants, family visits and cultural scene also draw visitors
Though outdoor activities are iconic of the area, Shaffer says Ocala is also becoming attractive for its restaurant, arts and cultural scenes. She noted Fort King when it comes to historical sites and the Appleton Museum for arts.
“I think that whole vibrancy of the downtown, the arts and music, more restaurants coming, it's just really allowed us to create such a vibrant completion of our story, and of course our people here are just so wonderful and friendly and accommodating,” she said.
The bureau’s latest report estimated the average summer visitor (July through September 2020) is 49 years old with a household income of $62,100 per year. Around 22% of visitors were coming for the first time.
Over 90% of visitors drove to the area. They spent an average of 3.6 nights in the area and around $1,300 on their entire trip.
At 45%, nearly half of guests put dining out as a top activity, while 35% visited family and friends, 24% came to relax and unwind, 15% attended horse shows and events and 15% visited areas springs. (For the whole year, however, 27% attended horse shows and 24% visited springs.)
While increased visitation year round may cause local residents to groan over increased vehicle and foot traffic, Shaffer reminds that tourists make money for the county and save residents from higher taxes.
Even in the slower summer season from July to September of 2020, over 465,000 visitors spent nearly $150 million. Most of the annual spending by visitors goes toward restaurants, followed by entertainment, shopping, transportation and accommodations.
“Out of the money that is generated by our guests, we have a savings in Marion County of $8.9 million dollars in money that we as a community would have to pay,” Shaffer said.
Visitors to Ocala/Marion County save local households around $527 annually using state and local taxes, the bureau's Economic Impact Study for 2020-2021 found. Shaffer says this enhances things like law enforcement, roads, libraries and parks.
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Ocala, Marion County welcomes summer tourists from Florida, Southeast