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Mapping how to attract, keep tourists
Tourism official says Effingham has lots of advantages
cheryl hargrove 1
Cheryl Hargrove, state regional tourism manager for The Coast, talks to Effingham community leaders about how to take advantage of tourism opportunities. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Effingham County could shape itself into a draw for tourists, if enough resources are applied to making it happen, a state tourism official said Thursday.

In speaking to attendees at the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual community retreat, Cheryl Hargrove, the new regional tourism project manager for the coastal area, said tourism has meant 250 jobs in Effingham, a figure that is up 15 percent since 2008 and 60 percent from 2003.

“That’s good news,” she said. “However, I’d like to see it go up.”

Tourism has a $53 billion impact on the state, and the trends for tourists are those seeking eco-friendly and eco-sensitive destinations.

“They’re looking for green tourism and places that take care of their assets, and not just for now but for future generations,” Hargrove said. “They are willing to pay more for that opportunity, and that’s good news.”

One of the keys is giving those visitors reasons to stay and shop. The longer visitors stay, Hargrove said, the more likely they are to spend.

Effingham also can tap into the growing cultural heritage tourism sector. Hargrove urged the county to provide evergreen opportunities, sites and attractions that are open year-round. African-American heritage tourism also is growing rapidly, and the state is working on a way to promote the 50th anniversary next year of the Civil Rights Act.

“Cultural heritage travelers are doing a lot of things you have here in Effingham,” she said, “and that is great news. You’re not having to re-invent the wheel and create new products and services.”

The cultural heritage traveler also is important to Effingham. Cultural heritage travelers spend more and have longer stays, Hargrove said, and many of Savannah’s 14 million visitors go there for the culture and history.

Effingham can benefit from Savannah’s booming tourism industry, and the community could offer hub-and-spoke tours and move to different day trips to attract visitors to the Hostess City.

“Savannah is a great neighbor, a great asset,” Hargrove said.

She added Effingham has many nature-based activities that are under-utilized, and those could be offered as alternatives or complements to Savannah’s offerings. Group tours also are looking to bundle their activities in a regional or multi-state fashion.

“The Salzburgers is a unique story that needs to be shared and more,” Hargrove said. “Bundle a place to eat, a place to shop, a place to stay. Bundling it, making it easy.”

Visitors also are looking for active destinations — “imagine walking into the museum and smelling bread baking,” Hargrove said — and walking tours and tours of homes are “a wonderful opportunity” to get people connected to a site.

“There will be some need to look at the development aspect, from an engagement and a staffing aspect,” Hargrove said. “The key here is access, being able to know how to find these jobs, what will I experience when I am there and will I tell others about it. People no longer want to have a passive relation with a destination. They want to do something. We learn better by doing something.”

Hargrove also lauded Springfield’s efforts to bring the Mars Theatre back to life, calling the renovated building “a tremendous asset.”

Between 2,000-3,000 cars stop each day at the Port Wentworth visitor center on I-95, and Hargrove said the focus of the state is to get those visitors to think about straying off the interstate.

“It has become our mantra and goal to get people off 95 and into the community and stay longer and spend more,” she said, “and help those visitors understand what we have to offer and how rich their experience will be if they can spend more time in our destinations.”

The state’s tourism office, which is under the state Department of Economic Development’s umbrella, has technical assistance for partnerships and collaboration and grants available. It also has an annual media grant to help local tourism efforts get their message out. It has led to buying an ad in Atlanta magazine to reach its readership.

Hargrove also said the community should make sure it is able to deliver on its grand promise and it is delivered consistently with quality.

“At the end of the day, it comes to funding,” she said. “There is an investment to tourism, just like there is in any other form of economic development. You should really commend yourself for the investment in the Mars Theatre because it is a gem not just for the state but for the Southeast.”