Civil War draws visitors to Georgia for anniversary

Morris News Service
ATLANTA  — In the 1960s, popular culture asked the question “suppose they gave a war and nobody came?”
That could apply to Georgia’s Civil War tourism.
While the original question advocated ending warfare if soldiers refused to fight in Vietnam, in today’s context it may ponder whether overnight visitors will come for landmarks about a war fought 150 years ago that still impacts modern society. And more of those battles were fought in Georgia than in any state other than Virginia.
Tourism is a potent economic engine because it doesn’t require the lead time of factory construction, doesn’t have spewing smokestacks and is more labor intensive than manufacturing. As a source of foreign revenue, it is growing this year a double the rate of average U.S. exports.
“America’s economic recovery is being driven largely by the travel industry,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Each international visitor we welcome to the U.S. helps to support local communities and small businesses across our country. This is a tremendous opportunity.”
The Peach State is the birthplace and resting place of generals and leaders in the Confederacy, including its vice president Alexander Stephens. Its president, Jefferson Davis, was captured here. Even the fictional, like “Gone With the Wind,” celebrates Georgia’s role in the war.

So, the state has an opportunity to capitalize on its assets in drawing tourists to the state. But for various reasons the opportunity isn’t being fully exploited.

For instance, next year is the anniversary of the attack on coastal Fort McAllister and the burning of Darien by Union forces. They were the most significant events in Georgia that year during the war, according to “Crossroads of Conflict, A Guide to the Civil War Sites in Georgia” published by the Georgia Civil War Commission.

Yet, tourism officials aren’t focusing on it, according to Tomee Sellers, sales and service manager with the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have not really marketed it too much because we don’t have a lot here,” she said.

Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, Fort King George and other historic sites in the area do plan events like battle reenactments and lectures that draw visitors from 100-150 miles away but few out-of-state or international travelers.

The following year, 2014, is the anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta and the March to the Sea, a string of nearly daily battles all year long running diagonally across the state from Chickamauga to Savannah. Many historians consider it the deciding moment in the war because Union successes assured Abraham Lincoln’s re-election as president while destroying the key logistics hub in Atlanta that funneled to rebel troops the gunpowder, arms, uniforms, food and other supplies produced in Augusta, Columbus and other Georgia cities.

Columbus has its Confederate Naval Museum, and Augusta offers canal tours to the site of the Confederate Powder Works where only the chimney remains. A plaza with interpretive signs is planned around the chimney, and the community hosts occasional lectures.

“Augusta isn’t one that springs immediately to mind for the average person,” acknowledges Rebecca Rodgers with the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area.

The state has made modest efforts to raise the consciousness of Augusta’s wartime role or that of other cities.

This year’s activities illustrate that. It highlighted the Great Locomotive Chase of April 12, 1862, in which Union soldiers in civilian clothes made off with the Confederate engine “General” that led to a dramatic, cross-country railroad chase.

Promotions by the Georgia Department of Economic Development yielded some results. Quick-response codes in ads and posters led 133 smartphone users to scan for more information, including a special advertising section in “Trains” magazine. A video was played 537 times and an audio file 158 times, helping to swell the crowd at North Georgia events commemorating the raid.

But aside from specialized publications, the state hasn’t launched a major campaign focused on the Civil War. It doesn’t do any television advertising other than sponsoring “Georgia Traveler” on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The print, online and billboard advertising it does focuses on working mothers seeking vacations that offer family activities such as fishing, stargazing, hiking and kayaking which are not linked to a particular year or unique to Georgia.

However, the department does feature Civil War commemorations in a newsletter emailed to about 2,000 subscribers, and it is scripting driving tours. Plans also call for an online video, welcome-center brochures, and familiarization trips for tour operators and travel writers next year all related to the war but no mass marketing, according to Stefanie Paupeck, specialist on the department’s marketing and communications staff.

“We’ve been very limited with the budget we have,” she said. “We’re trying to do things that would benefit all travelers, not just the history buffs.”

She said travel by foodies and film fans are growing segments of Georgia’s tourism market, noting that Tybee Island saw an 11 percent boost in visits after the release of the Miley Cyrus movie shot there “The Last Song.”

Operators of destinations across Georgia can get the state to share the cost of ads, but they seem to be resigned to accepting that weak tax collections have resulted in modest promotional spending.

“The state, I think, had larger plans at one point before the cuts came,” said Rogers.

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