by Tony Judnich
Like other parts of Northwest Florida, Okaloosa County could attract a lot more economy-boosting visitors by opening a portion of its beaches to dogs.
A beach-goer sunbathes sun bathes recently at Grayton Beach with her dog. Walton County allows dogs on the beach, with a permit.
[NICK TOMECEK/DAILY NEWS]That’s according to Martin Owen, a Shalimar-based tourism industry consultant who regularly attends Tourist Development Council meetings.
“It’s niche tourism we can attract, particularly out of season,” he said Thursday. “A lot of dog owners tend to like traveling with their dogs. Our neighboring counties are addressing this, and so is Okaloosa.”
County Marine Economic and Tourist Development Resource Coordinator Erika Zambello shared information with the TDC on Thursday about dog-friendly beaches in Walton County and Pensacola Beach in Escambia County. But she said she has not had any discussions with other Okaloosa County officials about establishing a dog-friendly section of beach.
With the exception of service animals and police dogs, dogs are prohibited on the publicly owned beaches of Okaloosa County, Destin and Santa Rosa County. In Walton County, property owners and permanent residents can bring their leashed dogs on the beach during certain hours and with a permit.
People who violate Okaloosa County’s law pertaining to dogs on the beach could be cited with a fine of at least $100. But such citations are rarely given, county officials said.
Usually, sheriff’s deputies will ask violators to remove their dogs from the beach and the dog owners do so without a problem, county spokesman Rob Brown said.
At the TDC”S March meeting, Owen said dog-friendly beaches lead to “phenomenal business.”
Areas like St. George Island in Franklin County east of Panama City are “eating our lunch,” economically speaking, by allowing people to bring their dogs to its beaches at certain times, Owen said. He said dog owners clean up after their pets on the island and that there have been no problems.
[JENNIE MCKEON/DAILY NEWS] Owen also noted that there are more than 77 million dogs and 55 million families with dogs in the United States.
But in Okaloosa County, “We don’t let (canines) anywhere near the sea,” he told the TDC.
The closest dog parks to the county-owned beaches are the Destin Dog Park at 4100 Indian Bayou Drive and Fort Walton Beach Dog Park at Liza Jackson Park at 338 Miracle Strip Parkway.
TDC Chairman Dale Peterson, who owns Dale E. Peterson Vacations in Destin, said a lot of travelers call his company to ask about dog-friendly accommodations. TDC member and Destin City Councilman Jim Foreman said having a designated part of the beach available for dogs might be a possibility.
Okaloosa and some other counties need to look at the Tampa Bay area, which has been praised for being the most dog-friendly area in Florida, Owen said Thursday.
“I’m always looking at ways to attract new visitors,” he said. “Tourism is a multi-faceted industry, and you have to look at how the generational changes are happening and how the cultural changes are happening.”
Pensacola Beach has two beach dog parks for leashed dogs. Each park has doggie bags, disposable bins and handy wipes available. Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Brandi Thompson Whitehurst said people who call the county to ask about beach dog parks are told about the ones in Pensacola Beach.
Nonie Celeste, the owner of Nonie’s Ark Animal Encounters in Fort Walton Beach, shared details about a recent trip with her dogs to one of the Pensacola Beach dog parks.
“I’d like to say that I felt REALLY guilty being out there with my dogs,” she said Thursday via email. “The scent that they leave behind, whether it be feces or just the scent from the pads of their feet, leave a trace that wildlife such as turtles and shore birds can smell and makes them avoid the area.”
As far as Okaloosa, Celeste said she might support a fenced area so dogs can run free on the beach.
But, “It would take a lot of research to figure out how to make everyone and every critter happy,” she said.