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OWENS: Savannah can't live on tourism alone

In Savannah, we’re blessed with a thriving tourism community. And, for someone who spends his entire day talking about tourism, I’m going to ask a very important question:

Are we, as a community, too reliant on tourism?

Tourism is the second largest industry in Savannah, brining $2.5 billion of spending into Savannah that would not otherwise be here.

Tourism employs more people in Savannah than any other industry. With 26,000 jobs, there are opportunities for everyone. For those with little to no education or skills, to highly specialized skills, there are plenty of opportunities and room to grow.

Tourism is successful because we have a beautiful city, rich history, pleasant weather, great tourism products and graciously kind residents that visitors from around the world want to experience.

Thankfully, we’ve had leaders public and private, then and now with the foresight to wisely preserve what makes Savannah great.

We’re also made up of an industry of people who focus on customer service. We’re taught to deal with complaints and make the most of any situation—eternal optimists.

Of all the great things that tourism brings, it can be dangerous for a community to rely too much on one single industry.

In my job as a spokesperson for the tourism community, I’ve heard a few people who have a negative view of tourism because of this great need to diversify our economy. In my mind, that’s like having a negative view of grocery stores because we need more hospitals.

Instead, it is an opportunity for all of us as citizens of the Coastal Empire.

Earlier this year, the personal finance website that started in 2013, WalletHub published, “2016’s Cities with the Most & Least Diversified Economies.”

The writers of that article compared 313 of the most populated U.S. cities and ranked them on a 0 to 100 scale on how well that city was economically diverse, meaning was there a wide swath of industries from which to draw or was that city dominated by one particular industry.

According to WalletHub’s matrix, Savannah ranked an overall 79, or solid C, for economic diversity. We’re not the best and we’re not the worst. We have strong ports, military spending, retail, manufacturing and other industries that make Savannah strong.

Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Columbia, North Charleston and Montgomery ranked higher than we did in mid-size cities, but we showed more economic diversity than Athens, Charleston and Tallahassee.

Examples of cities that focus on one predominant industry are Detroit and Silicon Valley. And, you can see the good and bad of that. Detroit is suffering with the American automobile industry in a slump, and Silicon Valley is thriving in a tech boom.

On the other hand, a diverse economy made up of a wide array of industries has a better chance at weathering any storm that comes.

“Cities too dependent on one sector or one major employer are at the mercy of fickle market fluctuations,” said Gary Hoover, Professor of Economics and Department Chair at the University of Oklahoma in the WalletHub article.

Sometimes that market fluctuation is a great recession, and sometimes it’s a terrorist attack. We don’t know what could happen, and economic diversity offers resilience.

During the Great Recession, Savannah fared better than some other cities in part because of the strength of our tourism community, but we can’t keep expecting the same results.

I believe we need to continue to diversify and strengthen all of the pillars of our community.

The best way to do that is not led by the tourism industry. We’re really good at creating great experiences and products that people around the world want to enjoy. And, judging the economics of it, we do well at that.

Diversifying our economy will take other initiatives, and it is important, in fact vital, to the health of our entire community that those other initiatives take root.

Can our community do something like that? Absolutely. I’m in tourism, so I’m an eternal optimist.

 

Michael Owens is president/CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council, the largest non-profit trade organization that supports and represents the tourism community. Contact Owens at michael@tourismleadershipcouncil.com or by calling 912-232-1223.

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