Owen Martin
Owen Martin

When we think tourism here on the northern Gulf Coast, we automatically default to sugar white sand and emerald green water. Why wouldn’t we? We have some of the best beaches in the world. The trouble is the tourists only tend to see the part of our counties that are within two miles of the beach. The effects of tourism spread far inland, though, as many of us involved in the tourism industry live away from the beach and consequently spend income within inland communities. Incidentally, that’s another benefit of tourism that’s not often recognized.

Last year we went on a short road trip to Georgia, to an area north of Atlanta. I wrote about the trip on my blog — http://ow.ly/KgHL3083iem. We took the back roads avoiding as many towns as we could. It was here that what’s termed agritourism was evident. What may not be obvious is that tourists travel for many reasons, and we’ll cover some of these in the future — cultural tourism, ecotourism, heritage, historical and medical tourism to name a few.

There is a current movement to preserve the rural way of life in Florida. Despite the impression that the Sunshine State is the theme park and beach capital of the world, agriculture is vital to Florida. Farm cash receipts from marketing Florida agricultural products in 2012 amounted to $8.22 billion.

Florida has a vibrant agritourism business (http://visitor.visitfloridafarms.com) as does Georgia (http://georgia-agritourism.org), which offer everything from pick-your-own to farm-stays. Many farms we passed in Georgia had signs offering “on farm accommodation.” There also are farm visitor centers, many boasting restaurants, souvenir stores and produce outlets — all activities that generate new income for the rural communities.

Do we promote agritourism here in Northwest Florida? Well, not really. Our DMOs — Destination Marketing Organizations — can only use bed tax to promote the areas in which the tax is collected. That restricts promotion to coastal areas. Not only can’t the tax be used to promote inland areas, it can’t be used to improve the inland infrastructure. If we (the counties of Northwest Florida) extended the bed tax to short-term accommodations across the whole counties, then the income received could be used for tourist promotion (marketing- and tourist-related infrastructure) in the rural areas.

Remember, bed tax is only paid by visitors — not the local population. It’s a win for everyone.

Our rural areas would get support, promotion and development. They also would receive new opportunities to generate sales tax and income. There would be a need for new employment in our rural areas, so locals don’t have to travel to work, and new skills would be added to the inland areas. Our tourists would get more chances to experience something unique, possibly out of regular tourist season. And lastly our county commissioners would get a legal way to spend bed tax income in northern areas of the county.

Agritourism has taken off in many areas. You could say it’s a rapidly growing industry. One worth germinating!

Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to martin@owenorganization.com.