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Savannah readies for the power of sail
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Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, talks with Effingham Magistrate Judge Scott Hinson. Marinelli told Effingham Chamber members about the impact tourism has on Savannah. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Already regarded as one of the top destinations for tourists in the South and the U.S., Savannah is about to embark on a new chapter when a flotilla of sail pays a call.

The city will host the start of the Tall Ships Challenge, which begins May 3, and is an annual event that rotates between the Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast and the Great Lakes.

“That’s going to be a terrific event for our community,” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the Savannah Chamber of Commerce’s tourism arm. “We’re very excited about this. This will be one of the most spectacular presentations of Savannah and River Street that there has ever been.”

The parade of sail, as the ships leave the docks and head back out to the ocean from the Savannah River, will be May 7. Of the 14 vessels confirmed to be headed to Savannah, nine will take part in the race

“It works very much like the Tour de France, where they race to different marking points,” Marinelli said at a recent Effingham Chamber of Commerce membership luncheon.

The race is scheduled to conclude in late July in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“It is really designed to showcase our maritime community,” Marinelli said. “There couldn’t be a better family event.”

The ships coming to Savannah include the Bounty, built for the 1962 remake of the movie “Mutiny of the Bounty.” The Indonesian-flagged Dewaruci will be on display for the last time in this hemisphere, and the Eagle, the U.S. Coast Guard’s training barque, also will be in Savannah.

“I love this event for a number of reasons,” Marinelli said. “Not only is it going to make for a fun weekend, but the relationships we’ll build will last forever, and we’ll be able to bring these folks back at different times of the year.”

With the tall ships and the attention they are expected to generate, Visit Savannah also is looking for volunteers to help during the festival.

“If you’re interested in volunteering for one of those days, we could certainly use the help,” Marinelli said.

The original estimates from the organizers have been doubled from 60,000-75,000 visitors to nearly 150,000 for the five-day event.

Savannah had 11.4 million visitors in 2010, and the city has a population of about 275,000. About 3.6 million visitors were overnight, and about 5 million were “day trippers,” coming to Savannah for the day, according to Marinelli.

“Savannah is a getaway destination. We’re a weekend destination,” he said.

The city draws many visitors who come to either Hilton Head Island, S.C., or Amelia Island, Fla., for longer stays and choose to spend a little time in the Hostess City of the South.

Judging by the hotel/motel tax receipts, Marinelli is expecting the tourism numbers for 2011 to top those from 2010.

“I think we’re off to a good start,” he said.

Tourism generates nearly $1.9 billion in spending in Savannah, putting its economic impact second only to the ports. Tourism also results in 20,000 jobs.

“Savannah tourism is very, very important to the economic prosperity of our city and our region,” Marinelli said. “The impact goes far beyond hotels and restaurants.”

The city isn’t just looking for waves of visitors, according to Marinelli, but the “right” kind of guest.

“The right visitor is defined as someone who is likelier going to stay longer, spend more, come back again and tell their family and friends,” he said.

About 60 percent of Savannah’s visitors have been to the city more than once, and half of those have visited Savannah more than four times.

“That tells us we have products that match what they are looking for,” Marinelli said.

With the coming summer, there are fewer events scheduled to avoid Savannah’s humid climate. But Visit Savannah’s schedule kicks back into gear not long after Labor Day.

“Our year has started to shape up nicely where we have built in some very consistent,Destrong events for the first year, and we protect those humid, summer months when the numbers start to go down,” he said.

The ever-growing Savannah Black Heritage Festival kicks off Visit Savannah’s year, and it’s followed the Savannah Book Festival, St. Patrick’s Day, the Savannah Music Festival, the Homes and Gardens Tour and then the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf.

“From early February to the middle of May, we have built in some really strong marquee events,” Marinelli said, “and we have some events in the middle of all those.”

Marinelli said this year’s massive St. Patrick’s Day crowd — and next year is expected to be just as big — overwhelmed the nearly 280-year-old city.

“Savannah wasn’t built to accommodate 1 million visitors,” he said. “But somehow, we made it work.”

The Savannah Craft Brew Festival starts the fall tourism schedule, and it includes the Savannah Film Festival and the Concours d’Elegance. Savannah also was home last year to its first Rock n Roll Marathon, and it is one of the smallest markets to host one of the events. The Rock n Roll Marathon has signed on to stay in Savannah for three years.

Marinelli said marathon officials told him to expect about 10,000 runners for the race. Savannah’s biggest running event annually is the Bridge Run, which draws about 5,000 participants.

In its first year in Savannah, the Rock and Roll Marathon drew nearly 23,000 runners.

“We’ve bookended the year with marquee events,” Marinelli said. “That’s really the foundation of how we set up the year for visitors.”

Savannah has been bandied about as a potential terminal for cruise ships. The largest cruise ships now carry passenger loads of more than 5,000 passengers, and the medium-sized ships have between 2,500-3,000 passengers. Marinelli said those cruise lines could help bolster tourism from Monday-Wednesday, since Savannah is often a weekend stop for visitors.

“I don’t know if that will ever happen,” he said, “but it’s getting a lot of chatter. If there is one sector of the travel industry that is growing, it’s cruise ships. They’re adding more ships, and bigger ships, to their lines.”

Discussions also have been under way about a new civic center and replacing Grayson Stadium.

“There’s been a lot of chatter about a new arena and chatter about a new minor league baseball park for the Sand Gnats,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re very, very fortunate to have a lot of live oaks and Spanish moss and cobblestones.”

Conde Nast has called Savannah one of the top 10 cities to visit, and Travel and Leisure magazine also has lauded Savannah as a top tourist destination.

“That kind of publicity has helped drive traffic,” Marinelli said. “That, and Paula Deen, too.”