Local tourism $$: Visitor spending increases 91 percent over last 10 years in Opelika-Auburn area

Local tourism $$: Visitor spending increases 91 percent over last 10 years in Opelika-Auburn area

Cynthia Williford | Reporter | Opelika-Auburn News |

Photo by Dakota Sumpter 
Michael Johnson autographs memorabilia after placing third overall during the Barbasol Championship, 
a PGA Tour event, on Sunday, July 17, 2016 at Robert Trent Jones at Grand National in Opelika. 
The event has become a big tourism attraction for the Opelika-Auburn area. 

Between local shops and restaurants, sporting events and cultural attractions, the Auburn-Opelika area has increasingly become a destination for travelers with interests across the board.

And local business, including the more than 6,000 people employed by the tourism industry, are seeing the difference. 

In the last 10 years, visitor spending in the area has increased by 91 percent, according to the 2016 Economic Impact Report released by the Alabama Tourism Department.

Visitors spent $438 million at area hotels, restaurants and retail stores just last year, showing a 12 percent increase over 2015, according to information provided by the Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau. And that number is still growing, said Robyn Bridges, vice president of the Bureau.

“We just have seen a steady increase really almost every month for the past running 15, 16 months,” Bridges said. “Revenues have just climbed and climbed.”

'Not just football anymore'

Though fall, with Auburn Tigers football games and cooler evenings, was once the busiest season for tourism in the area, spring has caught up over the years, Bridges said. Football tourism still attributes to the growing attraction to the area, but the increase in tourism comes from several different avenues.

“It’s not just football anymore,” said Auburn Mayor Bill Ham. “It’s equestrian, it’s softball, it’s baseball, certainly it’s basketball—it’s everything related to Auburn. I think the brand is getting better and better known.”

Auburn University remains the largest attraction to the area in all areas including people traveling in for business meetings, amateur sporting events and other connections to the university through education or other organizations.

National travelers also come to the area for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Grand National in Opelika, particularly in spring. Expanded culinary offerings in both cities, including the John Emerald Distilling Company and Red Clay Brewing Company, also bring in visitors and give them reasons to come back.

“When you have those types of things that lend to people’s experiences when they come here, that makes them want to come back and stay longer,” Bridges said.

And the expansion of the hotel industry, which has increased more than 60 percent over the last 10 years, helps visitors stay longer. The increase also helps the area bring in larger events like the Super 7 Alabama High School Athletic Association state championship games that Auburn hosts every other year.

There will be a total of six hotels off exit 58 on Interstate 85 once construction has finished on two new hotels near Tiger Town, said Gary Fuller, Opelika mayor. Whether visitors are coming for Auburn games, an event at the Bottling Plant Event Center or a business trip, Fuller said the city always welcomes guests.

“We like getting those out of town folks in, and we like to love on them and have a good time because we want them to come back,” Fuller said.

Fuller and Ham attributed the increase in tourism to the work of the tourism bureau to attract visitors, but Bridges said it’s an easy job.

“Ninety-one percent—I had to check my math several times—it’s just hard to believe,” Bridges said. “I would love to think that we are doing what we’re supposed to do here at the tourism bureau, but our jobs are so easy because the community continues to grow and we have more and more to offer every day. People just love to be in the Auburn-Opelika area.”

“It’s that partnership that we talk about all the time,” Ham added. 

“You’ve got the city of Auburn, the city of Opelika, the Tourism Bureau, Auburn University and everybody understands they’ve got a role to play and an important part in continuing to improve the area.”