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May 31, 2006   Email to Friend 

Alabama Beaches Back Open for Business
Debra Davis

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are headed back to the state's beaches, which feature 32 miles of sugar-white sand on the Gulf of Mexico in Baldwin County.
Memories of a storm-ravaged Gulf Coast are still around, but those images quickly fade as the smell of salt air, a cool breeze and warm sand provide visitors the perfect welcome to Alabama's beachfront paradise.

"The beach is back, not only to where it was, but it's higher and wider and has a great berm (a terrace on the back of the beach) that's going to protect us in future storms," said Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau in Orange Beach. "All of the things that you really love about Alabama's Gulf Coast -- white sand, blue water, Southern hospitality, great seafood, the fishing and golf -- they're all still here. We may be a little scraped, a little scuffed up, but we're certainly back and ready to entertain." Most of the homes and businesses damaged by Ivan that weren't repaired have been demolished, Foster said.

"The oldest buildings were the hardest hit by Ivan and quite honestly, they are the ones that for the most part are gone," he said. "Many of the newer buildings -- built within the last 10 years -- actually stood up very well. Some were damaged, and many of them were out of service for two or three months, partly because we had to wait for the infrastructure to be rebuilt."

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are headed back to the state's beaches, which feature 32 miles of sugar-white sand on the Gulf of Mexico in Baldwin County. With the help of those tourists, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the unincorporated area of Fort Morgan are cashing in on the state's natural beauty.

The type of tourists attracted to Alabama's coastline varies by the season - families at spring break and summertime, snowbirds in winter and young couples and golfers in spring and fall. Foster said he is proud that the Alabama beaches are considered a family destination.

"We are not a college kids' spring break location, never have been," Foster said. "Everyone here is committed that we won't be. We don't want thousands of kids like Panama City and South Padre Island -- that's not what we're into. What we've found is that you can have families or you can have college kids -- you can't have both because neither one tolerates the other very well. So we are a family beach."

Those families and other tourists mean big dollars for Alabama's economy. According to the Department of Tourism and Travel, more than 20 million people visited Alabama last year, generating more than $7.5 billion. Tourism also is responsible for more than 160,000 jobs in the state.

Tourists to Baldwin County, most of which are headed to the coast, account for more than 30 percent of Alabama's tourism dollars, raking in nearly $2 billion annually from beachgoers. Getting the beach back open for business wasn't just important for tourists, it was vital to the areas' economy, Foster said. "The attractions have all come back. All the golf courses are open, and they are great," he said. "The fishing fleet is back in place. Just by pure luck we already had contracted to do a beach renourishment project before Ivan hit. So as soon as the storm was over, literally within a month or two, we were pumping sand back onto the beach from the Gulf. We pumped sand for nearly 12 months, and our beaches look fantastic."

Those restoration efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) recently named Gulf Shores/Orange Beach among its Top Restored Beaches. Coastal communities nominate their beaches, and an independent panel reviews selections based on ecological and economic success, short- and long-term performance and any unique challenges it overcame. Only six beaches won the award nationwide this year.

Alabama Gulf Coast leaders grimaced as three separate hurricanes brushed past Alabama's beaches last year. While the resort areas sustained little structural damage, other Alabama communities like Bayou LaBatre, were hard hit. Still, the beach area suffered from misinformation that kept some tourists away.

"We still have tourists who think our beaches were damaged by Katrina and other storms last summer," Foster said. "We're working very hard to let people know we're back open for business and better than ever."

For more information about Alabama's Gulf Coast, visit the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau's website www.gulfshores.com or call 800-745-SAND.


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