New Florida boomtown? Southwest sure hopes so

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On May 23, Southwest will touch down at the first new U.S. airport constructed since 9/11—Northern Florida Beaches International—which will serve Panama City and the Panhandle. The hope of Southwest and other airlines is to draw travelers to the Emerald Coast's more than 20 miles of white-sand beaches and, in effect, create another marquee destination in the Sunshine State.

To serve NFBI, Southwest rolled out last Friday a customized version of the Boeing 737, the Florida One. (Catch photos of its colorful paint job at the Southwest Blog.)

Up until now Florida's Emerald Coast was a drive-up destination. Visitors were, by in large, determined snowbirds—and even more determined Spring Breakers. With the advent of NFBI, however, tourism officials project Panhandle visitation to triple to 480,000 travelers a year by 2018. To accommodate the surge, they're touting plans for up to 27,000 residences, 490 hotel rooms, a couple of marinas, and 37 million-square-feet of commercial space.

So what do you think? Does the Emerald Coast stand a decent chance of becoming a new Florida hotspot?

— Cliff Ransom

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