When it comes to assessing and publicizing the impact of America’s civil rights era on the South, Liz Bittner thinks there is no time like the present. On January 1, the country will celebrate the 155th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and on April 4, America will reflect on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis.
“Just a few years ago, the National Park Service identified a number of significant sites related to architecture, schools, parks and other civil rights landmarks across the South,” said Bittner, Travel South USA’s president and CEO. “However, Lee Sentell, our Board member from Alabama, knew there were so many more sites to be noted for travelers interested in this chapter of our history. We need to tell that story and facilitate travel to those sites. This is a key element of our tourism region and we’re taking a leadership role in making that happen.”
Travel South USA is spearheading the effort to create a United States Civil Rights Trail and is working to form a nonprofit marketing alliance that will help to promote as many as 140 local sites that are significant to the civil rights story across 14 states and Washington, D.C.
“There are stories to be told from the civil rights era for domestic and international travelers,” said Bittner, “stories of tragedy and stories of bravery, stories that reflect the strength of our nation’s young people and the resilience of their elders. It’s not a story of separate but equal; it’s a story of equality for all.”
“Stories” is a word Bittner uses often. She believes that the South has the best storytellers in America. Many of them, she said, are just ordinary citizens.
“It usually comes down to a person,” she said. “Travelers want to know or figure out who that person is and hear it from them. Many times, they encounter those persons within the context of an unremarkable event like a meal or chance meeting. That’s how the South resonates with its visitors.”
Bittner is bullish on her 12-state region’s long-term prospects as an international travel destination, but said it, like others, has seen visitation fall off the past couple of years.
“2016 was down, and 2017 will be, too,” she said. “Some of that is political, and some of it is the strength of the dollar across the world. Certainly, tragedies like the events in Las Vegas and New York affect us all. But Travel South USA is committed to protecting our recent growth in international visitation despite these obstacles.”
Bittner relishes her organization’s role in leveraging the efforts of a dozen states and hundreds of convention and visitor bureaus to sell America’s most popular travel region.
“We unite our states’ and cities’ efforts,” she said. “That’s our role. We’re the glue that holds it all together.”
Travel South USA’s 2018 Domestic Showcase takes place March 18-21, 2018, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Bittner says buyer registration is up 35 percent over last year, reflecting a high interest level in the destination.
“It was time for us to return to this iconic coastal area,” she said. “Interestingly enough, we seem to do it every 10 years. We were there in 1998 and 2008, and we’re looking forward to being there again in 2018.”