Heritage tourism a benefit for the Classic City

Athens’ historical charm offers citizens more than attractive scenery. In fact, the town’s rich history plays a vital role in the economy by attracting a rewarding type of tourist—the heritage traveler.

Studies show that cultural heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money than other kinds of tourists such as business or leisure travelers, according to the National Trust of Historic Preservation.  Athens recognizes the value of these travelers and encourages their stay by using marketing tactics that showcase the city’s heritage and by maintaining the historical integrity of the Athens with legislative protection.

The tourism industry as a whole generates a significant amount of money for the city. Tourism expenditures for 2009 contributed $210.25 million to Athens-Clarke County’s economy, generated 2,460 jobs and supported a $44.93 million payroll, according to the Georgia Economic Impact of Travel Report for 2009.

Tourism also supplements the city’s economy through taxes. Seven percent of tourists’ money goes straight to the city’s financial department by means of the Hotel/Motel Tax. Every month more than 20 hotels and motels in Athens-Clarke County collect and remit a seven percent occupancy tax to the finance department, according to the Athens-Clarke County Government. That money is then dispersed to various parts of the city.

“Of the seven percent hotel-motel, the ACC government receives 14.29 percent of collections, the Conventions and Visitors Bureau receives 31.42 percent, and The Classic Center receives 54.29 percent,” Communications manager of the Athens Conventions and Visitors Bureau Hanna Smith said. “For the most recent Fiscal Year (FY 10, July 1, 2009 – June 10, 2010), the CVB’s portion of hotel-motel tax was $573,378.”

Although the exact number is not available, a large portion of those visitors are heritage tourists.  In the fiscal year of 2009 to 2010, the Athens Welcome Center greeted 10,393 drop in visitors; out of that number 2,797 of those visitors frequented Athens for heritage travel reasons, according to the Welcome Centers 2010 Annual Report.  On a national level, heritage tourism ranks high in popularity for travel types.  Of America’s leisure travelers, 78 percent took part in cultural and/or heritage activities, according to a 2009 study on Cultural and Heritage Travel by Mandela research.

In addition to being a popular type of travel, heritage tourism is also extremely profitable.

“Nationally, heritage and cultural tourism is a $192 billion business,” said Nerissa Serrano, Research Director of the Tourism Division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.  “Cultural and historic visitors spend an average of $994 a trip. That’s a third more than the average leisure vacationer.”

Athens is attracting a growing number of these travelers.

“I have seen a strong increase in the heritage traveler,” said Athens Welcome Center Director Evelyn Reece.

Even during the economic downturn of the past few years, heritage tourism remained strong. “When the economy declined our overall number of visitors walking through the door declined, but we were still seeing the same number of people interested in history,” Reece said. “So the percentage of the heritage tourist was increasing.”

While the Welcome Center greets tourists of all kind, the Athens Conventions and Visitors Bureau invites them here with marketing efforts.  In response to studies showing the lucrative benefits of a heritage traveler, the Athens Conventions and Visitors Bureau places a significant emphasis on these visitors in particular. “We do consider our heritage market one of our primary targets,” Smith said. The Visitors Bureau markets to the heritage traveler by advertising Athens’ historic properties and the many Classic City tours on their website. It also collaborates with other communities in the region, Smith said.

Athens is one of the seven historical cities located on the Antebellum Trail, Georgia’s first official tourism trail and a veritable heritage enthusiast magnet. Travelers are gearing up for the third annual Antebellum Trail Pilgrimage to take place April 27 through May 1. During the Pilgrimage weekend, communities along the 100-mile trail will host special events as well as entrance into private historic homes not generally open to the public, according to a press release from the Visitors Bureau.

Although the support of a historically rich region doesn’t hurt, Athens appeals to heritage travelers as a single destination as well. In 2009, Athens was named one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To receive this accolade, Athens met the program’s requirements of having a dynamic downtown, cultural diversity, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a strong commitment to historic preservation, sustainability and revitalization.  The same factors that earned the city this title are what draw in the heritage traveler.

The Athens Welcome Center offers a variety of tours that showcase these qualities. One of the tours is the Museum Mile Tour, a two-hour tour of Athens’ four unique house museums— the 1820 Church-Waddel-Brumby House, the 1840s Taylor-Grady House, and the 1850s Ware-Lyndon and T.R.R. Cobb Houses. The Welcome Center also offers an Athens Heritage Tour, which is a 90 minute guided tour that highlights the oldest houses, the world’s only double barrel canon and the historic downtown district.

During the month of February the Welcome Center sells discounted tickets to the African American Heritage tour. The last tour of this series will occur Saturday. The enthusiastic tour guide, native Athenian Pam Ramey, leads an intimate group through the city highlighting locations significant to the black community of Athens. Intertwining her own experiences with rich history on the city, Ramey tells the story behind buildings that many locals pass by every day, such as the Morton Theatre and the Holmes-Hunter Building on the University’s North Campus.

Local heritage enthusiasts maintain the city’s endearing qualities that make Athens so historically rich. The Athens-Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission works to “protect historic character,” by locally designating historic properties, which require a Certificate of Appropriateness for exterior changes.  Athens-Clarke County has a total of 10 local districts and 41 individual local landmarks, according to the commission’s website. “Our role isn’t to stop progress, but we make sure changes are made in a measured orderly manner,” Athens-Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission Chair Sharon Bradley said. Although the commission does not preserve Athens for the sole purpose of heritage tourism, they recognize the importance of maintaining the quality of neighborhoods or sites that people want to visit, she said.

Bradley, a heritage traveler herself, shares what makes this type of tourism so appealing.

“If you go somewhere historic there is a soul there; it has character and weight,” Bradley said. “I like an interesting story or interesting architecture.”  While some travelers come to Athens to enjoy the historic architecture of buildings, there are many other reasons a person might be interested in heritage tourism.

The Welcome Center tries to accommodate every type of heritage traveler, so as to help visitors get the most out of their stay. The two most common types of heritage traveler that Reece sees in the Welcome Center are families that are trying to tie in an educational aspect to a vacation, and retired couples who are taking the time to do and see things they did not have time for before. “We keep tally sheets; when the visitor comes in we have a general conversation and try to find out what brought them to Athens,” Reece said. “Often they are interested in some form of history of Athens, whether it is Antebellum, African American or sometimes it is music history.”

Heritage tourism remained fairly steady during the economic downturn, and has promise to continue contributing to Athens’ economy.  Whether citizens recognize the financial benefits of the Classic City’s heritage, many locals appreciate the rich culture and charm of the city and want to protect it.

“We have a stewardship for the historic elements and affection for them,” Bradely said.  “Athens has an attitude that those things are important.”



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