By Martin Owen | Special to Destin.com
When I was 16, one of my greatest goals was to learn to drive. I bought an old car to do up when I was 15 and had my first driving lesson the day I became legally eligible. My friends did the same. During my late-teens and twenties (in the UK), my friends and I thought nothing of driving all over Europe for our vacations. Evidently it was the same here in the United States, and that had a particular effect on the Emerald Coast tourism business.
Well over 90 percent of Emerald Coast leisure visitors drive to our piece of paradise, with many loading up the car and driving 10 or 15 hours to visit. It’s been that way for 40 years.
Like everything else in tourism, things are changing. My children live in New Zealand — one is 28, the other 24 — and neither can drive or have any wish to learn. The same thing is happening in the U.S. The Federal Highway Administration reports that every demographic is losing interest in driving. Between 2011 and 2014, two particular age groups — 16-year-olds and those in the 20-24 range — stopped getting driver’s licenses. For 17-year-olds, the percentage of licensed individuals fell from 45 percent to 44.9 percent. Similar reductions happened across all age groups.
There are lots of reasons why people are giving up, or not starting to drive, but for us this will have a significant effect on Emerald Coast tourist patterns in the future. We’ve built our tourism on people planning their vacations in advance, loading up the whole family in their sizable car and heading off for a road trip.
If the family of the future not only isn’t interested in driving, but can’t drive, and doesn’t have a car, then one asks, what are their options? Take an Uber to the beach from Houston? The current generation that is doing all the traveling is the Millennials, of course, and we’ve discussed how they make last-moment decisions to go on vacation rather than planning months or even weeks ahead. There looks to be a perfect storm brewing, which will affect the Emerald Coast in the coming years.
Tourism planning involves a great deal of crystal ball staring! It also involves building now for the future. We should be looking at efficient and comfortable public transit (not free — they will pay!) for our tourists to get from their condos and hotels to the beach, shopping mall — wherever. Yes, they will use taxis, Uber and Lyft, but we’ll need available transport.
How will they get to us? Probably the only viable option is the expansion of air services to the area. Our three local airports are all aggressively seeking new routes. Although there’s hope that the New Orleans to Jacksonville rail service will be revived soon, other rail connections are probably way in the future.
It’s not an overnight change, but we’ll have to plan.
Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to email@example.com.