Tourism in alachua county has a record breaking year FEATURE STORY

The tourism industry in Alachua County is more substantial than many imagine.

The county draws millions of visitors a year from the state, the southeast, and around the world. They come for our world-class educational and healthcare institutions, natural wonders, outstanding cultural programming, sporting events, special events, and much more.

The importance of these visitors and the essential revenue they provide to our local economy is recognized every year during National Travel and Tourism Week.

Starting May 19 and running through the 25th, Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, the county’s destination marketing organization, is once again recognizing National Travel and Tourism Week to celebrate the tourism and hospitality industry in our community. It’s a 40-year tradition with the U.S. Travel Association highlighting the importance of travel and its economic impact.

Last December, Visit Gainesville, Alachua County recognized the incredible contributions to the hospitality industry workforce, by partnering with the Alachua County Hospitality Council with the “Spirit of Hospitality” awards, which are given to individuals who provide quality hospitality experiences for customers within our community.

Attracting visitors

Throughout the state of Florida, every paid overnight stay at a lodging accommodation, campground, short-term vacation rental, or other transient rental for less than six months, is charged a bed tax. Alachua County began collecting bed tax in June 1987. The move was widely supported by residents, the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, local governments and supporters from the cultural and sports communities. Everyone recognized the significance of the revenue stream that could be reinvested into projects, events and venues.

Last year alone, tourism in Alachua County had an economic impact of more than $738 million. Visitors who stayed overnight in paid accommodations spent a whopping $474 million on lodging, entertainment, dining, shopping and transportation.

Those figures generated a combined $236 million in local wages and salaries to help support thousands of local jobs.

Visitors to Alachua County paid over $164 million for overnight stays, generating a record-setting $8.2 million in bed tax and $20.5 million in sales taxes in 2023. This includes contributing to the Wild Spaces Public Places surtax, conserving land, repairing roads, building and improving parks and addressing affordable housing.

“Tourism is Florida’s largest industry, and in Alachua County, visitors are critically important to the strength of our local economy. Visitors account for approximately 25% of all spending in Alachua County, and this spending helps support the employment of thousands of residents,” said County Tourism Development Director Jessica Hurov.

What draws people to Alachua County?

The University of Florida is the region’s biggest draw. Thousands of fans travel to pack the Stephen O’Connell Center and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for sporting events. Parents come to the college to visit their students, help with move-in day and attend graduation, all the while staying at local hotels and eating at local restaurants.

Aerial shot of the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

According to Americans for the Arts, the arts and culture sector in Alachua County generated $189.5 million in economic activity during 2022 — $139.9 million in event-related expenditures by audiences and $49.6 million in spending by arts and culture organizations themselves. That economic activity supported 2,992 jobs, provided $101.2 million in income to residents, and generated $33.1 million in tax revenue to local, state, and federal governments.

Last year, Alachua County provided $2.7 million in bed tax funding to over 75 local organizations and municipalities to support their programs and events.

The Nature and Culture Destination Enhancement grant provides operational and marketing support to organizations countywide, including the three professional producing arts organizations: The award-winning Dance Alive National Ballet, the iconic Hippodrome and the renowned Gainesville Orchestra. Other organizations include the Gainesville Fine Arts Association, Gainesville Community Playhouse, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens and Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation, Cade Museum, Matheson History Museum, Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, Cultural Arts Coalition, Watermelon Festival of Newberry, Writers Alliance of Gainesville, Latina Women's League, UF cultural groups such as the Florida Museum of Natural History, Harn Museum of Art and Phillip’s Center for Performing Arts.

Dancers perform at Dance Alive National Ballet in Alachua County.

Together, these and many other organizations create thousands of events, performances and programming days for residents and visitors to enjoy.

Partnerships provide the opportunity to expand and amplify the county’s ability to create tourism-generating venues and events. Since the inception of the bed tax, the county has contracted with the Gainesville Sports Commission (GSC) to attract and promote participatory sports events and to submit bids for new sporting events to be held in the county.

Additionally, GSC administers the sports destination enhancement grants which this year were awarded to Gator Water Polo, Easton Sports Development Foundation and High Springs BMX.

Legendary festivals and music scene

Special events are a major draw for visitors, and Visit Gainesville, Alachua County annually budgets $250,000 toward dozens of event sponsorships, providing funding and marketing support to the diverse organizations that produce these events. Events and partners supported include the Gainesville Downtown Festival and Art Show, Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, Pride Festival, Afro Roots Fest, Tu Fiesta Radio Festival, Flying Pig Parade and more.

Alachua County prides itself on its diverse music scene and supports music events including the Fest, Tom Petty Weekend, WestFest, Heartwood Music Festival, the Wombash, HipHop GNV, and the recent Big: Culture & Arts Festival produced by Dion Dia in downtown Gainesville.

The Fest, for example, is a three-day punk and indie music festival that features hundreds of bands from around the country and brings in thousands of visitors from around the globe who descend upon downtown Gainesville.

Tim Barry performs at Vivid Music Hall for Fest 21. Photo by Katie Claire Leslie

The event in recent years has sold out its 3,500 passes the same week the festival’s lineup is announced. Visitors book multiple hotels and will rent out other accommodations throughout the county and eat at local restaurants, helping boost the local economy.

Fest creator Tony Weinbender said that the funds play an important role in advertising the event and Gainesville as a whole explaining, “It’s a great way to help get the word out so people are aware it’s happening and to entice people to visit the region next year.”

Capital investments

The County Commission invests part of the bed tax into capital projects that spur even more tourism to the area. The $30 million investment to build the Alachua County Sports and Events Center is a prime example. The center features the only indoor banked track in the state of Florida. Soon, the world will be traveling to Alachua County as it hosts the first World Master’s Athletics (WMA) indoor championship to be convened in the United States in March 2025. This week-long event will bring thousands of competitors and spectators from around the globe.

Champions Park

Other capital projects include:

  • Alachua County Equestrian Center - $12 million
  • City of Newberry Champion’s Park - $8 million
  • $1 million for the Cade Museum construction
  • $500,000 for upgrades to the Rotary Park
  • $500,000 for Dance Alive National Ballet’s new facility

“Alachua County is a unique and authentic tourist destination,” Hurov said. "Through the efforts of the county, the Visit Gainesville, Alachua County tourism office, our partners, venues, attractions, and events, the future looks very bright. We are all proud of our record-setting fiscal year 2023, and we are very optimistic about the state of tourism in Alachua County."

Story by Andrew Caplan, Alachua County’s public information officer. He is a former investigative reporter and editor with 10 years of experience covering state and local governments.