- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A long, busy holiday weekend along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere is helping boost a surge in tourism in Alabama, and officials hope visitors will set another record for spending in 2016.

Industry leaders say hotels and condominiums in Baldwin County are reporting high occupancy rates for the July 4 holiday, which coastal tourism promoter Kay Maghan said is considered the “super peak” of the beach season.

Lakes and rivers from the Tennessee Valley to Eufaula will also be clogged with boaters if the weather holds out, and at least two dozen communities are holding celebrations including fireworks shows or concerts.

Alabama’s tourism director, Lee Sentell, said it all adds up to a profitable period for the hospitality and visitor industry, particularly with the strengthening economy.

“A Fourth of July weekend like this, with the holiday being on a Monday, is the best of all possible combinations for free days for families,” said Sentell.

Here is a glance at Alabama’s tourism industry based on 2015 data compiled for the Alabama Tourism Department:

UPWARD TREND

Tourism has grown steadily in Alabama since 2010, the year the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in canceled room reservations, empty restaurants and overstocked stores all along the Gulf Coast.

Tourists spent a record $12.7 billion in the state last year, an increase of about $1 billion from a year earlier.

BEACH BOON

Baldwin County, home of both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, leads Alabama in tourism and drew about 6.1 million visitors last year. Its nearly 48,000 people working in hotels, condominiums, outdoor attractions and related businesses account for more than 25 percent of the state’s total tourism employment. The county had about $1.3 billion in travel-related earnings last year.

Aside from Baldwin County, the state’s other top counties for tourism included, in order: Jefferson, which includes Birmingham; the rocket and science hub of Madison County, which includes Huntsville; the port county of Mobile along Mobile Bay; and the state capital of Montgomery. The five counties account for 68 percent of the total visitors to the state.

WHAT TOURISM?

A handful of Alabama’s most rural and hard-to-reach counties have virtually no tourism industry at all, the report shows.

Lodging tax receipts are an indicator of tourist visits because the money translates into people staying in motels or inns, so the statistics can also help identify places with few paying visitors.

Clay County - located in rural eastern Alabama without any interstate highway access - had the lowest lodging tax take in the state, just $719. Two other counties also had less than $5,000 in total lodging tax revenues, Lamar and Washington.

Other counties could be just as low or lower, but the state revenue agency doesn’t release statistics from counties with only one business that collects lodging tax. That means no figures were available for last year for Barbour, Bullock, Hale and Lowndes counties.

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