For most people, traveling to Florida's panhandle ends with a stop in Panama City Beach. But for a growing number of tourists, a trip to the "gulf" means Gulf County.
The George G. Tapper Bridge into Port St. Joe is the bridge to paradise for a special breed of tourist. "We're such a small community and our visitors like that," said Jennifer Jenkins, Executive Director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council.
Jenkins has just completed her first year on the job. "It's been a great year in the sense that the community has really embraced the Tourist Development Council and our mission and our purpose."
The bulk of the TDC's $1 million annual budget is funded by bed tax collections; however, a new partnership program with 120 local businesses also generates revenue. In the past year, TDC efforts have included a re-design of its website and extensive visitor research.
According to the study, visitors are looking for a place to see and not be seen and time to catch up instead of keep up. "They like their solitude, they like to explore and they don't want to have their vacation set and all these things that they have to check off," Jenkins said.
As the mid-June sun cranked up the heat, John Patteson and his seven-year-old son prepared to cool off by kayaking St. Joseph Bay. "The water is clear, there's all kinds of wildlife... so you can go down and explore and see something you haven't seen before," Patteson said.
Jenkins and her staff understand the importance water plays in Gulf County's economy. In fact, it anchors their marketing efforts. "People come here to interact with the water... whether they're on it, in it, looking at it, thinking about it," Jenkins said. "Like the air that we breathe, that water is essential to us and that's why they come here."
Some visitors stay at the historic Port Inn in downtown Port St. Joe. The inn is owned by David Warriner, who also serves as the TDC's chairman. Warriner credits Jenkins for bringing a professional approach to tourism marketing and said that has led to buy-in from business owners, government leaders and the community at large.
"We have found a way to make our summers rock... but our spring and our fall and our winters have shown a substantial increase," Warriner said. "That's when we all need it."
According to Jenkins, the county's bed tax collections are up 15% over last year. The TDC has seen an 80% increase in traffic to its website and a 43% jump in visitors to the welcome center, she said.
For some, it's a return trip to Gulf County. "We've been here a few times and there's a little bit of everything here for everyone," said Susan Domuczicz of Port Charlotte. "There's great beaches, beautiful solitary places and yet there's a lot of great restaurants and great things for the kids to do," she said.
For the Pattesons, who have also made several trips to the area, it's an escape from the crowds that pack other destinations. "We stay on the go all the time so it's nice just to stop and be somewhere," Patteson said.
Jenkins admits the laid back experience isn't for everyone, and that's fine. "We're still uncrowded and I think the best thing for us is to stay true to who we are and find those people that want that experience," she said.