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Baldwin's beaches No. 1 in tourism, agency says

ORANGE BEACH (AP) — Battered by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 but only sideswiped by Katrina when the huge hurricane devastated coastal Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005, Alabama beaches have regained their No. 1 ranking as the top coastal draw on the northern Gulf, promoters say.

A report by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau says Baldwin County, the state's primary beach destination, collected $227 million in lodging taxes through October. That accounts for 24 percent of the $947 million in lodging taxes collected in Baldwin and five Florida panhandle counties during the period, making Baldwin's beach towns tops in the region.

Hoping for more

After a 2005 tourist season filled with demolition, storm scares and rebuilding, visitors came back to the Orange Beach and Gulf Shores area in 2006, figures show, and officials are hoping for better things this year.

"Our goal for '07 is to increase by 15 percent over '06," said Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the visitors bureau. "It's a huge challenge, but it's one, as we look forward, we think we can do. We've got a lot of very, very positive factors going for us."

Three major commercial developments will add millions of square feet of shopping and restaurant space this year — much of it located in hurricane-protected areas away from the beachfront — and 1,346 condominium units are scheduled to open.

To lure new visitors, promoters are gearing up for an advertising campaign that is expected to cost more than $1 million.

Partly to reach more affluent customers after decades of being known as the "Redneck Riviera," Alabama beaches will be a featured sponsor on an Atlanta newspaper Web site linked to the Masters golf tournament in April. The bureau even plans to advertise in Oprah Winfrey's magazine.

Marie Curren, director of marketing and reservations for Brett/Robinson realty, told the Press-Register in a story Monday that the company had its highest revenues ever in 2006 and expects to do even better this year. Bookings in the conglomerate's 1,889 condo units already are up 15 percent this year.

One thing working for Alabama's beach economy is the fact that competing property companies, like Brett/Robinson and Meyer Real Estate, refer customers back and forth when rooms might not be available at a specific building.

"The more everyone works together, it benefits the community so much more than being at each other's throats," Curren said. "Rather than have them go to Destin, let's keep them in the neighborhood."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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