Tourism matters in the southwest part of state

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 16, 2016

By Rep. Bradley Byrne

It is that time of the year again. Families and students are flocking down Interstate 65 or across Interstate 10 to our Alabama beaches for spring break. Those of us who have lived here our entire lives know what it means: crowded roads, packed restaurants and full hotels.

What you may not have realized is just how important tourism is to our area’s economy. In Baldwin County alone, 5.7 million tourists visited the beaches last year. Approximately 46,000 people in Baldwin County are employed in the tourism and hospitality industry. Even more, the economic impact in just Baldwin County is over $3.5 billion dollars, and the number of visitors to our beaches continues to grow each year.

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Tourism isn’t just limited to the beaches. Many people travel to Mobile for Mardi Gras or to visit the historic city. In fact, the U.S.S. Alabama had over 400,000 visitors last year and is one of the top-five most-visited tourist attractions in Alabama.

Mobile also continues to grow and expand their tourist appeal. Just last week, I toured the new GulfQuest maritime museum in downtown Mobile, which is a great asset to our city and will boost tourism.

In Escambia County, there is the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, which helps support the local community and serves as a stopping point for many groups visiting our beaches.

Finally, each year thousands of people travel to Monroeville for the annual performances of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” As the people in Monroeville know, hotels and restaurants are packed during play season.

All told, the lodging tax revenue for just Baldwin and Mobile counties in 2015 totaled over $62 million dollars. That is money that can be used to support our communities and improve the quality of life for local residents.

In Congress, I have made it a top priority to do everything I can to support tourism. I am a member of the Travel and Tourism Caucus and a co-chair of the Coastal Communities Caucus. Here are two specific areas where Congress can act to support Alabama’s tourism economy.

First, Alabama’s visitors are primarily vehicle travelers, so it is critical we have a safe and reliable Interstate and highway system to help transport people to our destinations.

For example, a new I-10 bridge over the Mobile River would go a long way toward boosting tourism, especially when it comes to people traveling from one of our neighboring states like Florida, Mississippi or Louisiana. The bridge will also be an important hurricane evacuation route for moving people off our beaches in the unfortunate event of severe weather.

Last year, Congress passed a long-term highway bill to make it easier to fund important highway projects. Now we need to cut through some of the bureaucratic delays and speed up these important projects.

Second, we need to pass important reforms to get a longer Red Snapper season. Many visitors to our coastal communities want to go fishing, and a longer Red Snapper season would mean increased tourism.

I was able to help get a bill through the House last year with three important reforms that would lead to a longer Snapper season. Now we just need to get that bill passed through the Senate and signed into law.

Those are just two straightforward ways Congress can help support tourism, and in turn the economy, right here in Southwest Alabama. Ultimately, our area’s greatest asset will always be our people and our outstanding southern hospitality. I have no doubt visitors will continue flocking to Southwest Alabama for decades to come.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne represents the 1st Congressional District of Alabama, which includes Escambia County.