Selling the South: Culinary, Elvis & History Are Hot

MYRTLE BEACH—Twelve southern states rolled out new tourism activities and discussed hot travel trends last week at the annual Travel South USA showcase in Myrtle Beach, S.C. All states reported that visitors are taking multiple, short "getaway" trips throughout the year to southern destinations within 300 miles; that's in addition to a week-long family vacation.  Top representatives from 12 U.S. southern states met at the annual Travel South USA showcase last week

Joe David Rice, tourism director, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, and Lee Sentell, director of Alabama's Bureau of Tourism and Travel, also said travel in their states is trending a bit more toward the upscale. Multi-generational travel is also on the rise. And, the newest tourism activity craze within the U.S. South is geocaching (a treasure hunt by GPS).

Culinary Travel is Strong

Chad Prosser, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, said culinary tourism is very hot statewide from Charleston to Greenville. Separately, a new South Carolina National Heritage Corridor is promoting off-the-beaten path tourism within rural South Carolina. The corridor encompasses 14 counties and eclectic small towns and attractions from the mountains of Oconee County, along the Savannah River, to the port city of Charleston.

In Virginia, the 400th anniversary of Jamestown is spurring massive statewide tourism development, said Alisa Bailey, of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. For example, a new $95 million facility with interactive features is now open at Mount Vernon in northern Virginia, and more than 90,000 visitors are expected at America's Anniversary Weekend in Jamestown May 11-13, 2007. Bailey said availability is getting a bit tight around Jamestown, so agents might consider booking their clients into Norfolk, Newport News, Virginia Beach or Richmond hotels.

In terms of new attractions, the American Mountain Music Theater will open in April in Elkins, West Virginia. Annika Sorenstam, the world's number-one ranked female golfer, will open Annika's Academy of Golf and Fitness at Ginn Reunion Resort near Orlando, Florida, this summer. And Georgia's Stone Mountain Park will open a major, new attraction—Coca-Cola Snow Mountain—in November. On February 12, 2008, Kentucky plans a two-year Lincoln Bicentennial program to celebrate the former president's birth and achievements; Lincoln was born in Hodgenville in 1808.

North Carolina has purchased the 3,000-acre, long-time tourism attraction, Chimney Rock Park, and will incorporate it into the new Hickory Nut Gorge State Park. Also, the Raleigh area's first luxury hotel, the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, just opened with a 14,000-square-foot spa.

Elvis fans have many Elvis-focused events this year in Tennessee; it's the 30th anniversary of the King's death. This fall, the new East Tennessee State University Museum of Natural History and Gray Fossil Site will open in Gray, TN, displaying major archaeological finds including fossils of a red panda, saber-toothed cat and elephant.

Chuck Morris, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Office of Tourism, emphatically told delegates that, despite Katrina, "Louisiana is open for business." He said negative national media exposure has hurt New Orleans's tourism efforts but there are many positives with "hotels at 85 percent of their pre-Katrina levels." He also said there are many new features statewide, including two new golf courses on the Audubon Golf Trail.

Craig Ray, director of the Mississippi Development Authority's Tourism Division, said 11 casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are open, one new casino is opening this month, and six more new casinos are planned by 2010. Coastal hotel capacity is down from 17,000 rooms pre-Katrina to 11,000 today, but that should jump to 30,000 by 2010.

In Arkansas, tax collections that fund tourism were up 9 percent last year. People traveling across the country by car are stopping in droves to tour the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Rice says. As a result, California, Pennsylvania and New York surprisingly have moved into Arkansas' top 10 states for visitation sourcing.