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Southern Greatness: 25 Years and Still Going Strong

It’s amazing the difference a quarter-century can make.

This year marks the 25th edition of the Travel South Tour Planner.

Across the board, states throughout the region have seen dramatic gains in tourism, since 1994. Much of that progress has come hand-in-hand with major new tourist developments and initiatives.

We spoke to representatives from six Southern states to find out how their destinations have changed and grown in the past quarter-century.

Arkansas: A Presidential Legacy 

In January 1995, Bill Clinton was in the middle of his first term as president. His popularity helped to shine a spotlight on his home state.

“When Clinton was elected, it put Arkansas on the map,” said Jim Dailey, who retired as tourism director at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism on December 31, 2019.

Soon after Clinton left office in 2001, he announced plans to locate his presidential library in an overlooked area of downtown Little Rock on the banks of the Arkansas River. That announcement spurred a series of developments that revolutionized the city and led to a serious uptick in tourism statewide.

“The presidential library opened during the time I was mayor of Little Rock,” Dailey said. “That was one of the greatest anchor assets we could have ever asked for to help us establish a renaissance of redevelopment in downtown Little Rock.”

The Clinton library opened in 2004. Seven years later, another major attraction, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opened in Bentonville, a town in the northwest corner of the state. Bentonville is the corporate home of Walmart Inc., and the Walton family was instrumental in the museum’s opening.

“Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, and they’ve had between 1.5 and 2 million people visit,” Dailey said. “Last year, the economic impact on tourism for northwest Arkansas was about $1.7 billion.”

Contemplating the end of his tourism career, Dailey was excited about the future of the Natural State. Several other major projects are being developed, including the U.S. Marshals Museum, set to open in Fort Smith early this year.

“This is Arkansas’ time to shine and our time to be an economic player in the world of tourism,” he said. “We’re going to continue to build on the strengths that we have and the basic fiber of what Arkansas is all about.”

North Carolina: Ready for Its Close-Up

If you’ve ever spent time in North Carolina, you already know that it features stunning scenery, charming towns and talented people. When Hollywood discovered those traits, it opened a new chapter in North Carolina’s business community and tourism offerings.

Feature filmmakers first started visiting North Carolina in the late 1980s, with director Dino De Laurentiis opening a studio in Wilmington. Then in the 1990s, the state began making significant investments in its film industry, creating incentives for productions to shoot there. That opened the floodgates for what has become a thriving industry.

“Locations were key to landing film business, and they have played a key role in the productions that have come to North Carolina,” said Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC. “And when folks enjoy cinema and TV series and see the locations highlighted, they want to come experience those places for themselves.”

North Carolina’s list of film and TV credits is now long and wide-ranging. Notable recent productions filmed there include “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and the “Hunger Games” trilogy, which brought massive numbers of visitors to the mountainous western part of the state.

Wilmington, with its coastal charm, continues to land starring roles as well.

“The heart of our industry is on the coast in picturesque Wilmington,” Gaster said. “We’ve had projects as big as ‘Iron Man 3’ there. ‘One Tree Hill’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’ both had long runs there too, and they were able to travel and feature other parts of the state, including the Biltmore House and Duke University. Those projects still have people coming. Especially in today’s world of streaming entertainment, new fans are discovering those series and finding out they can come visit those places.”

South Carolina: New National Parks

A national park can bring a lot of visitors to an area. Since 2003, South Carolina, a state already popular with visitors, garnered a lot of attention with the designation of three new national parks within its borders.

Many of the park sites were already protected as state parks or other historic areas. But the national park designation takes them to new levels.

“The designation opens doors to national opportunities we may not have otherwise had,” said Dolly Chewning, director of tourism sales and marketing for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “It elevates the perception of the stories we have to tell.”

South Carolina’s first site to receive the designation was Congaree National Park, which preserves some of the oldest bottomland forests on the East Coast. In 2019, historic Civil War sites near Charleston received a joint designation as Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.

Perhaps the most significant park development came in 2017, when President Barack Obama designated the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, which comprises a string of historic sites in Beaufort.

“South Carolina has a significant national story, and the national park makes it easier for Beaufort to help people discover the transformative effects of Reconstruction,” Chewning said. “Having these national parks provides jobs and fuels recreation and tourism. It also connects people to our history and heritage on a state and national level.”

West Virginia: Blazing New Trails

In the 1990s, civic leaders in West Virginia faced a conundrum. The southwest region of the state had huge swaths of beautiful mountain landscapes, but they were inaccessible to visitors because they were held by private mining corporations.

“We were primarily a natural resource extraction area,” said Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. “We had millions of acres of privately held property. So our idea was to go to these owners and create a public body that would allow people from all over the country to come ride ATVs, UTVs and off-road motorcycles.”

That idea led to the inception of the Hatfield and McCoy trails, a system of scenic off-road vehicle trails on private property that was open for public use. The system debuted in 2000 with 300 miles of trails, and administrators sold 5,000 permits in just three months.

“We knew we had something great,” Lusk said. “We’ve grown every year since our inception. In 2018, we sold 50,031 permits, and over 85% of those were to non-West Virginia residents.”

Today the trail system covers 250,000 acres of private property, with commitments from other owners to add up to three times that amount. It is also creating significant economic opportunities in the region.

“We’ve had over 50 new businesses open up around the trail system — ATV outfitters and lodging businesses that are accommodating our riders,” Lusk said. “Our outfitters rent ATVs and UTVs and also offer guided tours. They provide you with helmets and machines, then take you on a fully guided tour with a trail lunch. They show you the scenic overlooks and tell you about the history of the area and the towns. They make it a very holistic experience, from hearing about our culture to eating our local foods and going to restaurants you wouldn’t have found on your own.”

Lusk said the organization is now conducting an economic impact study and expects to find an annual economic impact of $40 million to $50 million from the trail system.

Louisiana: Tripling Tourism

Louisiana, which has been popular with tourist for decades, has seen remarkable growth industrywide over the past 25 years. And that growth is most notable in areas of critical importance: visitation and economic impact.

In 1994, Louisiana welcomed 17.9 million visitors. In 2018, the state reached 51.3 million visitors, nearly tripling visitation over a quarter-century. Much of that growth came from Canada, which has tripled in visitation since 1998 to become the state’s largest international market.

Those figures alone don’t tell the whole story. Hidden in statistics from the past 25 years is the state’s remarkable recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2004. That year, 10.1 million people visited New Orleans and spent $4.9 billion, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. The following year, visitation plummeted to 2.6 million visitors, less than half of what it was before the hurricane.

Over the decade that followed, the city bounced back, and its tourism industry made dramatic gains. In 2014, the city received 9.5 million visitors, who spent $6.8 billion, a record amount at the time.

Today, Louisiana’s record-breaking streak continues. The state reports that 237,000 residents worked in hospitality in 2018, up from 158,600 in 1994.

Alabama: Embracing Its Stories

Twenty-five years ago, few people in Alabama were talking about the state’s civil rights legacy. Some of its most pivotal sites were nearly lost to history.

“In the early 1990s, I was working on a travel book about Alabama,” said Lee Sentell. “When I came to Montgomery, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s civil rights memorial was the only indication that anything had ever happened in Alabama dealing with civil rights. I found the sites where Rosa Parks got on the bus and where she got arrested, and there was no recognition at either site. Troy University was about to build a parking deck over one of them.”

Sentell, who now serves as the director of the Alabama Tourism Department, began lobbying Alabama’s representatives in Congress for recognition of these sites. That recognition led others throughout the state to build monuments and museums to tell the stories of civil rights pioneers.

“Now, I’m proud to say I’m on the board of the Rosa Parks Museum,” Sentell said. “And we recently had the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, the world’s first lynching museum and memorial in downtown Montgomery. If someone had told me that a museum about lynching would attract 400,000 people in its first year, I would have said it wouldn’t happen. But it did.

“People who would never have come to Alabama or Montgomery are coming in significant numbers. The city is seeing motorcoaches in numbers it has never encountered before.”

Now, Sentell and Alabama are leading another monumental effort. They spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in 2018, connecting significant historical sites in many Southern states and beyond. Under the guidance of the National Park Service and with the support of Georgia State University, they are now nominating Civil Rights Trail sites for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

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.