Head for the coast, and on a good weekend, thousands of people are at the shore, enjoying the sun, water and sugar-white sands.
Beaches are the original Florida — the lure that drew Northerners to a swampy peninsula decades before Walt Disney’s company decided to make the Sunshine State home.
Today, these original tourist attractions generate billions of dollars for the state economy and support nearly 400,000 jobs. Their salt-air allure is part of the foundation of modern Florida.
“If the beaches weren’t here, Disney would have thought twice about locating (its theme parks) in Florida,” said Kevin Murphy, professor and chair of the Hospitality Services Department at Rosen College of Hospitality Management at University of Central Florida.
“Our sun, sea and sand is the primary reason why people come here.”
Modern threats from toxic algae, erosion, rising sea levels and oil spills have failed to dim the public’s love of these natural wonders. If the weather’s good on a holiday like Labor Day, the sun-loving crowds prove it again and again.
But the numbers prove it, too.
The United States Lifesaving Association, which compiles data from public safety agencies on ocean rescues, estimates that more than 85.7 million people visited Florida beaches in 2017. That’s the highest attendance the organization recorded in the last 10 years.
It also represents more than a quarter of the more than 385 million people nationwide who visited beaches last year, the group said.
At least 43 of Florida’s state parks have beaches. Combined, they welcomed 14 million to 17 million visitors during each of the last five years, according to data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Florida Park Service.
That’s higher than the number of people who visited any one of Florida’s theme parks in 2017, except for Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Florida’s most popular state park with a beach is Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, near Clearwater. It drew more than 1.5 million visitors in each of the last two years, as many visitors as Universal Orlando’s newest theme park Volcano Bay in its first year of business.
And that’s just part of the story.
The more you look, the more it becomes clear that Florida is the nation’s undisputed beach king.
How Florida leads in beaches
Florida has a geographic advantage that favors its high beach attendance.
It has about 1,350 miles of coastline, more than any other state in the continental U.S, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Although the Sunshine State doesn’t come close to matching Alaska’s 6,640-mile coastline, it has at least 825 miles of coastline with beaches, according to the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association.
“Florida uniquely has beaches on two different U.S. coastlines, the Atlantic and the Gulf. This means different wave and water patterns, temperatures and culture,” said Derek Brockbank, executive director of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. “Florida also has beaches with different sand composition, ranging from sugary-white, to filled with tropical shells, to golden-hued.”
This diversity in beach landscapes offers different experiences that attract not only tourists, but also Villagers and other Florida residents.
“Our people love to swim,” said Sharon Jones, the Village of Hemingway resident who leads beach trips with The Villages Barefoot Beachcombers, one of at least five beach clubs in the community. “They’re not the kind of people that sit in a chair all day.”
Beyond the abundant coastline and three distinct beach regions to explore, Florida beaches have other significant advantages.
One selling point stands apart in the minds of many tourists planning their beach getaways: a mild climate for most of the year.
So when blizzards cover Nassau County, New York, with piles of snow, visitors can head south to bask in the sun in places like Amelia Island in Nassau County, Florida.
“If you look at some of the great tourist destinations in the world like New York and Paris, they’re not necessarily surrounded by beaches,” said Murphy, of UCF. “But when you look at millions of people coming to Central Florida, which encompasses two coasts, they often plan that visit around the beaches like Daytona Beach and Clearwater. To attract people to the coastal communities is paramount.”
Leading by acclaim
Florida doesn’t thrive as a beach tourism hotspot only by having beaches open all year.
It also has some of the best beaches in the nation, as ranked by several authoritative travel sources.
Florida beaches featured prominently on TripAdvisor’s annual list of the best beaches in the United States, including six in the top 10: Clearwater Beach at No. 1, Siesta Beach in Sarasota at No. 2, South Beach in Miami at No. 4, Fort Lauderdale Beach at No. 6, St. Pete Beach at No. 7 and Hollywood Beach at No. 8.
Those destinations also are favorites on the annual top 10 lists of Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a coastal ecologist at Florida International University. Although he’s one of the world’s top researchers on sea level rise and rip currents, Leatherman is perhaps best known by his nickname, “Dr. Beach.”
This year, he ranked Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach at No. 3 on his list, and Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin at No. 7. In 2017, Siesta Beach — a frequent entrant on his annual lists — was No. 1.
Attendance to Siesta Beach that year likely received a boost from press coverage of its ranking on the Dr. Beach list that received more than 600 million audience impressions, he said, citing tourism officials in Sarasota.
Other Florida beaches that won his acclaim in prior years include Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys, St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe, and Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg.
“Florida has clean beaches, clean water, clean sand and good access,” Leatherman said in an interview. “And (Florida beaches) are well-managed.”
To compile his lists, he grades beaches using a set of 50 criteria that includes the color and softness of sand, whether wildlife is present, and whether the beach has scenic vistas or is close to urban areas.
The most important qualities Leatherman looks for in a beach are the cleanliness of the water, public safety, and how well the beach is managed.
“If you don’t have clean water, you don’t have anything,” he said. “The Department of Health checks our water, and it’s excellent. There’s places where it’s not very good, but overall, our water quality is very good in Florida.”
Why beaches matter to Florida’s economy
Depending on where you go, the cost of a beach visit in Florida ranges from free to inexpensive.
Yet, they play a major role in Florida’s economy.
Tourism and recreation in the state’s coastal counties — not limited to, but including beaches — contributed more than $16 billion to Florida’s gross domestic product in 2011, 2012, and 2015, according to the most recent research available from the National Ocean Economics Program, which monitors the ocean economies of the U.S.
Florida and California, a state with $22 billion in GDP and more than 418,000 jobs tied to coastal tourism, together comprise one-third of the nation’s total employment and GDP tied to coastal tourism.
“The reason we don’t have state income taxes (in Florida) is because of the people coming to the beaches,” said Luke Cunningham, a charter boat captain in Clearwater. “It’s a critical part of our economy, that’s for sure.”
It’s certainly critical to Cunningham and many other people, since coastal tourism and recreation supported more than 397,000 jobs in 2015, according to the National Ocean Economics Program.
In its latest economic study on Florida beaches, also from 2015, the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research found beaches generate $5.40 for every dollar the state invests on beach management and restoration.
The study reviewed tourist spending related to beach travel compared with state leaders’ beach management and restoration investments during the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years.
During that time, state leaders spent about $44 million in taxpayer dollars in beach management projects that improved and enhanced the quality of Florida beaches.
That work contributed to more than $764 million in beach spending from domestic and international visitors, the report showed.
Many out-of-state visitors identify Florida with beaches more than they do theme parks.
In fact, the state Economic and Demographic Research study found that 25.5 percent of visitors to Florida called beaches the most attractive feature of the state’s brand. Theme parks trailed slightly at 24.3 percent.
“It may be noted that, while beaches are the most attractive feature to visitors, they generally do not directly generate revenue,” the report stated. “Instead, they facilitate an array of expenditures that collectively comprise the cost of the tourism experience.”
The beach tends to be such a lucrative destination, tourists will pay big bucks to stay close to it.
About 63 percent of hotel and motel business in Florida comes from coastal areas, according to a recent economic impact analysis for Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer.
STR, a company that tracks market data, found that visitors to Monroe, Collier, Nassau, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Walton counties this year paid an average of about or more than $200 per night for lodging.
Other statewide indicators highlight the significance of beach tourism to Florida.
Of the eight Florida counties that state leaders consider high-impact tourism areas — places where bed taxes raise at least $30 million a year — six of them are counties where beaches are a primary attraction: Duval, Volusia, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.
The other two — Orange and Osceola — have no coastline, but plenty of theme parks to make up for it.
“When we’re reaching out to visitors outside the area, we always lead with the beach,” said Kate Holcomb, spokeswoman for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau in Volusia County. “We definitely know our iconic beach is our main asset.”
Wide appeal, lots of activities
Saying you’re going to the beach offers only a broad description of how to spend the day.
A trip offers many possibilities, as simple or as elaborate as a visitor wants to make it.
Families with young children, teenagers and young adults, and senior citizens alike pack the shores of Clearwater Beach on an average weekend, their paths meandering around colored umbrellas, chairs and blankets.
If the kids aren’t in the water, they study the sands with toy pails and shovels in tow as they scout out spots to build a perfect sand castle.
Some adults, inspired by the childhood pastime, enjoy sand sculpting — an art that involves building more elaborate objects using the sand, not limited to, but including castles.
Depending on the beach, people also may find anglers casting rods and reels from fishing piers, players lofting volleyballs across an oceanfront net, standup paddle boarders gliding along the ocean, or parasailers soaring above the surf.
Add in surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers, and the beach becomes a moving spectacle of outdoor activity.
Grayton Beach, halfway between Destin and Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle, is where people can view the Underwater Museum of Art, America’s first underwater museum. It’s a sculpture garden accessible only by scuba diving.
Despite debuting only three months ago, Time Magazine recently named the underwater museum one of its top 100 places in the world to visit. Only one other Florida landmark made the list, Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Caladesi Island, a Dr. Beach favorite near Clearwater, attracts many paddleboaters because a canoe or kayak is the only other way besides a ferry to reach the beach.
Among those paddlers last year was a group of 12 members of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club. Jim Zoschenko, who led that trip and now serves as the club’s vice president, said the paddle trail across Hurricane Pass from Honeymoon Island leads through tunnels of mangroves.
The Village of Pennecamp resident said the club organizes at least one coastal paddle every year. He’s planning a return visit to Caladesi Island for the club next spring.
More members enjoyed the paddle to the beach than the beach itself, Zoschenko said.
“It was interesting that on that trip very few of our club members got in the water,” he said, “which was bizarre since the conditions were idyllic.”
Michael Salerno is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or firstname.lastname@example.org.