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Southern Destinations Then And Now

Oh, what a difference a half-century makes.

In 1965, the South was in a state of political and social transition. Though they have always had natural and historical attractions to enjoy, many Southern states were known more as headline-makers than vacation destinations. And tourism was more of a mom-and-pop endeavor than a powerful, job-creating industry.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of Travel South USA. The five decades since the organization’s creation have brought monumental growth and change, both for the South as a region and for the tourism industry. Today, travel, tourism and hospitality are leading economic contributors in many Southern destinations, and visitors enjoy a robust menu of travel opportunities from Georgia to Virginia, Missouri, Louisiana and all the states in between.

In addition to the promotional efforts of Travel South USA, a number of social, political and demographic developments have helped usher in a new golden age of Southern tourism. States have opened tourism offices and put funding in place to help sustain marketing and growth efforts. The opening of the Interstate Highway System created easy access to many destinations that were previously unexplored.

America discovered the South as a mecca for food and spirits, as well as a haven for outdoor activities of nearly every kind. As the 21st century dawned, the New South emerged as one of the most iconic and attractive travel destinations in the country.

To fully appreciate the strides the South has made in the past 50 years, we talked to representatives from six state tourism offices. They told us about where their states were 50 years ago, how they have reached their current status and where they hope to go in the future.



Antebellum Heritage and Olympic Legacy

The past five decades have seen a boom in visitation to Georgia as travelers discover its antebellum heritage, Olympic legacy and culinary riches.

“Tourism is one of Georgia’s top industries and employs about 10 percent of Georgia’s workforce,” said Kevin Langston, the state’s deputy commissioner of tourism. “When you have an industry of that size, it gets the attention of policymakers, and that drives budgeting decisions. Our policymakers have been very supportive of tourism over the course of the last 50 years.”

A growing interest in Civil War and civil rights history has brought attention to many of the state’s antebellum homes and other historic sites. And the preservation movement has helped beautify Savannah, as well as other smaller destinations around the state.

“So much of our tourism product is related to our history,” Langston said. “In Milledgeville, you have the first Georgia state Capitol and governor’s mansion, and they have been beautifully restored in places that are a little bit off the beaten path. Jekyll Island is another example: Without the historic preservation movement, that might not exist.”

Also boosting the state’s tourism profile was the 1996 Summer Olympics, which took place in Atlanta and brought the city massive positive exposure. Today, the city’s Centennial Olympic Park is the gateway to some of the state’s most popular attractions, such as the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.

Langston said his department will spend this year promoting Georgia’s cuisine scene.

“Culinary tourism is a big push for us in 2015,” he said. “We’ve incorporated restaurants into our tourism database, and we’re focusing a number of initiatives onto spotlighting the world-class chefs and restaurants here in Georgia.”



Establishing Incentives

Kentucky has long been famous for its horses, history and natural areas. But a series of key policy decisions in state government have helped to elevate the destination’s profile and prowess.

“For many years, tourism was housed in the Department of Public Information,” said Mike Mangeot, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. “But the recognition of tourism as a major driver led to it being established as its own agency in the ’70s. Then in the early ’90s, it was established as a cabinet-level position.”

Those developments dovetailed with the 1996 passage of the Tourism Development Act, a tax incentive aimed at attracting hotel development in convention and entertainment destinations around the state. Mangeot said this incentive proved hugely popular and has had tremendous impact in spurring infrastructure growth.

In recent years, Kentucky has benefited from an increased appreciation of one of its longtime signature products: bourbon.

“Right now, we’re seeing the growth of the bourbon industry,” Mangeot said. “Most of our distilleries are offering tours now. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the visitor experience at the distilleries in the last five to 10 years. We enjoy promoting bourbon, and there’s a lot of upside to that. I think we’ve just scratched the surface on that — it’s in its infancy.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.