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CITY TALK: Author shares warning about out-of-control tourism

Elizabeth Becker’s visit to Savannah last week provoked interesting conversations.

Becker is the author of “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.” The book is credited as being one of the first extended examinations of the worldwide tourism industry, but it’s worth noting that academics have been studying tourism for a long time and in great detail.

Becker made several public appearances while she was in town. I attended two of them.

Not long after her arrival, Becker spoke to a packed house at The Sentient Bean as part of Emergent Savannah’s Monday Means Community series. On Tuesday night, she was one of the panelists at Southbound Brewing Company discussing the relationship between tourism and history at the first Issues & Ale sponsored by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Becker views tourism through a critical lens, and at both of those appearances she emphasized that some cities – New Orleans and Venice, for example – have failed to manage tourism appropriately.

If you watch online videos of Becker’s various presentations at promotional events, you can find further discussion of cities and countries that have successfully and unsuccessfully handled the explosion in tourism since the end of the Cold War.

For example, she gives fairly high marks to nations such as France and Costa Rica but repeatedly details the failures of Cambodia.

At both events that I attended, Becker praised Savannah’s handling of some aspects of tourism growth although she said we need to have a clearer vision of the city’s identity and future.

This is no knock against Becker, but her praise of Savannah was obviously based on limited experience. For example, she lauded Savannah’s policies for short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, but many residents who live near nuisance properties don’t share that feeling.

And there are homeowners who were operating unproblematic short-term rentals in neighborhoods where the practice was later banned. Some of the pressures of short-term rentals in the Historic District could be alleviated if homeowners in other neighborhoods had more flexibility.

I should also note that Becker was apparently given some of the revisionist history about Savannah’s decision to end discussion about building a terminal for cruise ships. Yes, a broad coalition of residents cogently argued against cruise ships over a period of years, but the death knell came only after a consultant’s study identified serious “issues and concerns” with three prospective terminal sites.

If that study had found a better site for a terminal, we might still be fighting over cruise ships.

In her talk at The Sentient Bean, Becker touched briefly on the question of “saturation,” and the term stuck in my mind.

I know some downtown residents feel like we are already at a point of tourism saturation, but we aren’t anywhere close.

We have ample sites in the downtown area that will attract hoteliers in the next decade or so. Just look at the large underutilized lots along Montgomery Street or along Henry and Anderson streets.

You might think the city is already full of visitors, but we have room for many, many more.

There is obviously no guarantee that Savannah will become a more popular destination than it is now, but the safe bet would be to assume dramatic growth in tourism in the coming decades.

I was also struck by the emphasis on the word “authenticity” during Tuesday night’s forum at Southbound Brewing, where Becker was joined by Daniel Carey of the Historic Savannah Foundation, Vaughnette Goode-Walker of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and Michael T. Owens of the Tourism Leadership Council.

It was good to hear all the panelists say they think Savannah’s tourists desire authentic experiences and accurate history.

“History is interesting, warts and all,” said Carey.

Goode-Walker said she encounters tourists every day who want to know the “real story” and are looking for “an authentic experience.”

Owens noted that the TLC opposed cruise ships, opposed double decker buses and has recently created a voluntary certification process for tour guides after a federal court challenge led the city of Savannah to eliminate a controversial history test.

Maybe tourism growth will seem more manageable if we can continue to emphasize authenticity. If tourists want to eat and shop at the same places that local residents do, that seems like a win. If tourists want to partake in festivals and traditions that local residents love, that seems like a win too.

But if tourists come to Savannah for manufactured events, food, activities and history that have little to do with authentic Lowcountry culture, then we will likely find ourselves, as Becker warned, overbooked and overrun.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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