GULF SHORES, Alabama – Usually, the time of year known fondly as “snowbird season” – between January and March – is not overly critical to the entire, tourist-based economy of Pleasure Island.
But in 2011, officials say, the winter migration of retirees from the Midwest, Northeast and Canada might be a better gauge than ever.
Their numbers could start to tell the tale of how tourism will begin to rebound from 2010’s summer-long oil spill.
Officials at Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism say numbers tend to remain steady from year to year, because snowbird season tends to attract more temporary residents than short-term vacationers.
Spokeswoman Kim Chapman said officials were expecting numbers similar to those of years past — between 13,000 and 15,000 people — and that could be a positive sign.
Gulf Shores Councilman Steve Jones, who works for Kaiser Realty, said, however, that he expects the season to be better than last year.
“A lot of our regulars have been keeping in touch with us,” he said. “Very few of them canceled their plans. They want to support us.”
The most recent figures available, for December 2008 through March 2009, showed that season residents spent about $26 million. Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism officials could not provide statistics for last year.
Donna Watts, president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said the snowbird trend has been declining for a few years, with fewer people staying for month-long stretches.
But she said that more and more visitors are arriving in recreational vehicles and staying for a week or two.
“That’s been an asset for us,” Watts said. “And the snowbirds who are still coming are loyal. Hopefully, between all of it, we’ll see a good rise.”
That might help lure bigger spring break and summer crowds. The visitors may not be the same, Jones said, but “those people go back home and tell people what they saw.”
If they see the snow-white sand they’re used to, without the heavy deep beach cleaning equipment, he said, they’ll give positive reviews.
“We call it rotating the crops,” Jones said. “You’ve got to rotate that visitor market, and I think the snowbirds have a lot to do with facilitating that.”
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon pushed for BP to finish scrubbing oil from below the surface of the sand by January.
He wanted the snowbirds to see a clean beach, and he wanted those preparing for spring vacations to know that his city was OK.
“The last thing we want is for snowbirds to come down here for the serenity and have heavy equipment up and down the beach,” Kennon said. “We didn’t want them to see a beach under construction.”
Kennon hopes Jones is right that this snowbird season will show an increase over the last.
“In our economic situation, we need 110 percent of what any snowbird season has ever been,” Kennon said. “We need the best snowbird season ever. But I don’t know what to expect.”