Travel and tourism have long served as the backbone of Florida’s economy, which is now the 18th largest in the world. Here in Pensacola, we’re proud that our city has emerged as a driving force of this growth industry.
In just the past year, the Pensacola region welcomed 2.7 million visitors who have invested $787 million in our community, according to Visit Pensacola.
For both our community, and our state, a major priority is not only to maintain the current levels of tourism we enjoy, but to attract even more visitors. One key step we can take is to embrace the "sharing economy": empowering middle-class residents in Pensacola and elsewhere to provide transportation options through Uber or Lyft or alternative lodging through Airbnb, Home Away or Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO).
By leveraging these exciting new opportunities, which travelers and Florida residents alike clearly love and want, we can make our state an even more appealing destination for both tourism and investment.
In Pensacola, I’ve focused on making our city as welcoming as possible to residents who wish to share their homes as short-term rentals. With Airbnb alone, over 300 people in our community share their homes with travelers. In the past year, these local residents welcomed more than 25,000 guests and earned $3 million in the process. In turn, these guests spend money at our local restaurants, shops and attractions.
I’ve personally met with many of these short-term rental hosts and am delighted at how they serve as ambassadors for their neighborhoods and city. They make a point to guide guests toward the attractions that make our community so unique -- whether it’s our downtown that was just named the "greatest place in Florida", the Naval Air Museum, our 93 local parks, or simply the hole-in-the-wall cafe that you wouldn’t find in the tourist brochures. The Pensacola News Journal recently featured an Airbnb host named Channell who took a previously vacant downtown building and turned it into a flourishing short-term rental, which is now economically recharging the neighborhood instead of dragging down housing values.
These vacation rentals appear to be complementing our wonderful hotels by widening the reach of our city to new visitors. That could mean expanding lodging capacity during popular events that fill hotels to capacity, such as the Blue Angels shows. But it also means our city is appealing to millennials looking for authentic experiences, families who want to cook together and stay under one roof when traveling, and visitors on modest budgets.
I believe the benefits Pensacola is enjoying by embracing the sharing economy can be reaped by other cities and counties. I want to encourage more residents -- and more communities around the state -- to follow the lead set by Channell. By thinking creatively, we can turn vacant and dilapidated properties into economic engines for our neighborhoods.
I also urge my fellow mayors across the state to consider looking for ways to work with the short-term rental industry, because it ultimately helps bring visitors to our diverse and beautiful communities, infusing cash into the economy and creating jobs for Floridians.
There are a handful of Florida cities that have chosen to crack down on short-term rentals and penalize taxpaying homeowners. I fear this will have a chilling effect on tourism, and I know it has already alarmed many residents in my community. I am committed to working with all of Pensacola’s residents -- those who choose to share their homes and those who don’t -- to spur innovation and grow our local economy while avoiding over-regulation.
By embracing technological advances and the evolving preferences of travelers, we can boost our local and state economies and ensure that the world knows both Pensacola and Florida are open for business, and are terrific places to visit.
Ashton Hayward is the mayor of Pensacola.