Much Ado: In the scramble for tourism dollars, do whatever it takes

Published 8:00 am Friday, October 26, 2018

Tourism makes communities do funny things.

We roll out red carpets for strangers we don’t even know, in hopes they will visit us and spend some money. We don’t necessarily want them to stay for very long — disrupting the very lifestyle that brought them to our home to begin with — but long enough to spend some money that was earned elsewhere.

That tourism money is new money infused into a community — not old money that was generated and recirculated by local businesses and citizens.

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With movers-and-shakers, a strategic plan and a bit of luck, tourists will come, check into a hotel, overeat at lots of restaurants, buy tickets and take home souvenirs (hopefully nice expensive souvenirs, and not some cheap made-in-China reminders of indiscretions made away from home).

Tourism can be big business for a community. Just look at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Maggie Valley, North Carolina and Las Vegas. Doesn’t every community need all-you-can-eat seafood buffets shaped like Great White Sharks, salted gem mines and the false guarantee that “What happens in Xville, stays in Xville?”

To planners, managers and politicians faced with growing their communities, that blunt description is rather uninviting, lacking in enticing words and just downright too revealing when the job at hand is to extend a hook baited with the promise of “getting away from it all, to a place unique and welcoming.”

We need only look at most any village, town, city, county, chamber of commerce or state website to see the gussied up signs of “Welcome.” Testimonial videos; calendars of events; email newsletters; spotlights on the best restaurants, hotels, golf courses, stores; downloadable brochures, maps and coupons; and social media links so that we can share our tourism experiences far and wide.

Yes, my cell phone sends me a text notice every time there is shagging festival at Fat Harold’s at Myrtle Beach.

Some governments are very proactive in their chase of tourists, and have set up financial incentives so the locals can gear their work toward bringing in out-of-town guests. Common are the Hospitality Tax and Accommodations Tax, special taxes levied on restaurants and hotels.

Those tax dollars are then put up for grabs in the form of grants. To get a Hospitality or Accommodations Tax grant, an agency usually has to apply and put forth a plan that includes the ways and means to attract tourists.

One of the most common strategies is for the grantee to spend the money on marketing — marketing outside of the local community, targeting people who might come because of what the agency has to offer, such as a festival or art exhibit, events that were originally intended for the enjoyment of local people, now being reshaped to suit tourists.

Not a good deal for local newspapers that actually need advertising dollars to survive; a really good deal for Facebook ads that can breakdown demographics to the nth degree. Grant writers know the decision-makers for these grants are often representatives from the local restaurants and hotels.

The grants applications must demonstrate how using this money will “put forks in mouths” and “heads in beds.” They want that ROI.

As a Carolina boy who considers a week at the beach to be the only true definition of a worthwhile vacation, I’ve not traveled very much in my life.

But, as an occasional tourist, I know when I’m welcome, when I’m being played, and when no one cares. My experiences include excursions to Rome (the Eternal City, not Georgia), New Orleans, and Portland, Oregon.

Long before our current president confirmed what the rest of the world long suspected, Rome made me feel like an ugly American. I had barely gotten off the transatlantic plane — dying of thirst — when I got my first Italian eyeroll.

At the airport, I went to the first food vendor I could find and asked for a Coke. And that is exactly what I got: a room-temperature cup of Coke. I then asked for some ice but got the eyeroll, a hand flip and no ice.

I didn’t know that iced soft drinks was a big deal in Rome, Italy. It certainly wasn’t in Rome, Georgia. Instead of taking a moment to explain that ice was not commonly provided by Italian food vendors, all I got was left standing there wondering if the hand flip was the Italian version of the American bird.

That was the beginning of a week of cultural clashes between me and the city. No, I don’t speak Italian, and that in itself was an insult to and cause for dismal or outright lambasting by people who made most of their living off of clueless American tourists.

I call Rome the Eternally Rude City.

In contrast to Rome was New Orleans. My wife had to attend a convention there and I went along for the ride. While she sat in meetings all day, I roamed through the streets of the French Quarter, eating and drinking as much as I could.

The people of New Orleans could not have been anymore welcoming to me and my wallet — unlike the Romans, who actually stole my wallet. If I wanted a Coke with ice, I got it, and it was extra large. A shot of rum was often suggested and often accepted.

People on the streets were more than welcoming. A most-entertaining and fast-talking fellow offered to help me find Bourbon Street and, along the way, engaged me in a bet. I was game, and a little buzzed from the rum. With animated gestures and colorful language, he challenged me to a word game that I was sure I could win.

In the most delightful way, I lost that bet and $20 on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter. In hindsight, I lost $20 to a conman, who represented New Orleans in its truest fashion.

Even as I forked over the $20 bill to the man who played me, I didn’t feel ill toward him or the city. It was a worthy and authentic New Orleans experience.

Every other year for Thanksgiving, my wife and I visit our son in Portland, a very live-and-let-live city. If you’ve ever watched the television show “Portlandia,” you have seen a true slice of life of that oasis of liberalism.

I consider Portland to be one of my favorite cities, despite the fact (or maybe because of it) those people could care less if I visit there or not. You are more than welcome to eat poutine from a sketchy food truck or not.

You don’t like marijuana dispensaries on every street corner? Go visit the world-renowned rose garden. Need directions?

They have their own very full lives to live, and if you want to visit, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too.

It’s sort like visiting the extended Addams Family everyone is weird, and nobody cares. Saying Portland is weird is not a bad thing. Its official slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.”

The point is the locals didn’t fawn over me and my money, nor did they insult me and expect payment for it.

An expert guest speaker in tourism once said at a city convention that a community is not ready for tourism until it has enough cool stuff going on to satisfy its own locals. I believe that to be true, even though he was never invited back to speak again.

With that gauge in mind, I wonder if I can get a Hospitality Tax grant for a food truck shaped like Morris The Horse to serve collard greens and fried green heirloom tomatoes to visiting Romans? I’ll park it on Trade Street, where they can drink hoppy craft beer — on ice even.

I’m sure the locals will love it as much as the tourists.