Tourism Tuesdays July 5, 2016

  • New Grand Bay Welcome Center opens on I-10 at Alabama-Mississippi line
  • Busy holiday weekend boosts surging Alabama tourism numbers
  • ‘Stony the Road We Trod’: Teaching teachers about civil rights movement
  • A record number of appointments at the Alabama booth at IPW
  • Travel South USA releases international research data
  • To support and defend: Hundreds turn out for enlistment ceremony, monument unveiling at Battleship Park
  • There once was a couple from England…
  • Fifty amazing secret places and top tips from the US
  • Time Out New York recommends Escape to Birmingham
  • Bellingrath Gardens and Home earns Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence
  • McConnell retires from Visit Mobile
  • Send in anniversary events for 2017
  • Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events


New Grand Bay Welcome Center opens on I-10 at Alabama-Mississippi line

WVTM 13 TV, July 1

Gov. Robert Bentley and other state officials opened a new welcome center on July 1.  The new Grand Bay Welcome Center on Interstate 10 at the Alabama-Mississippi line will create a better experience for visitors to the state, but it will also create a needed safe haven for Alabama residents during hurricanes and other weather events, officials said.

“We can’t control natural disasters, but we can plan ahead to minimalize the effects of these disasters and help protect the people of Alabama,” Bentley said.

“This welcome center is designed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and to be a staging area for emergency response personnel.”

The building has some of the most modern hurricane-resistant design and features in the country.  It also has a parking lot designed for large trucks and emergency response vehicles with 227 spaces for vehicle parking and almost 100 tractor-trailer parking spaces.

While the welcome center will serve a crucial role in emergency management, tourism director Lee Sentell said the new center will also be a welcome addition to state tourism.

“The old center had been built in the early ‘70s and had suffered damage from multiple hurricanes,” Sentell said.

The new welcome center features improved access for the disabled, Wi-Fi access, a security station, multiple lighting upgrades, outdoor picnic areas and an enhanced Alabama Tourism lobby display that promotes Gulf Coast attractions.

Federal funds paid for about 90 percent of the new facility.  The Grand Bay Welcome Center is one of 26 projects in the country to receive both initial federal grants and additional federal funding as part of the Federal Highway Administration 2012 Interstate Maintenance Discretionary Award.

To read this article online, go to:


Busy holiday weekend boosts surging Alabama tourism numbers

The Associated Press,, July 2

A long, busy holiday weekend along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere is helping boost a surge in tourism in Alabama, and officials hope visitors will set another record for spending in 2016.

Industry leaders say hotels and condominiums in Baldwin County are reporting high occupancy rates for the July 4 holiday, which coastal tourism promoter Kay Maghan said is considered the “super peak” of the beach season.

Lakes and rivers from the Tennessee Valley to Eufaula will also be clogged with boaters if the weather holds out, and at least two dozen communities are holding celebrations including fireworks shows or concerts.

Alabama’s tourism director, Lee Sentell, said it all adds up to a profitable period for the hospitality and visitor industry, particularly with the strengthening economy.

“A Fourth of July weekend like this, with the holiday being on a Monday, is the best of all possible combinations for free days for families,” said Sentell.

Here is a glance at Alabama’s tourism industry based on 2015 data compiled for the Alabama Tourism Department:

Upward trend

Tourism has grown steadily in Alabama since 2010, the year the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in canceled room reservations, empty restaurants and overstocked stores all along the Gulf Coast.

Tourists spent a record $12.7 billion in the state last year, an increase of about $1 billion from a year earlier.

Beach boon

Baldwin County, home of both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, leads Alabama in tourism and drew about 6.1 million visitors last year. Its nearly 48,000 people working in hotels, condominiums, outdoor attractions and related businesses account for more than 25 percent of the state’s total tourism employment. The county had about $1.3 billion in travel-related earnings last year.

Aside from Baldwin County, the state’s other top counties for tourism included, in order: Jefferson, which includes Birmingham; the rocket and science hub of Madison County, which includes Huntsville; the port county of Mobile along Mobile Bay; and the state capital of Montgomery. The five counties account for 68 percent of the total visitors to the state.

What tourism?

A handful of Alabama’s most rural and hard-to-reach counties have virtually no tourism industry at all, the report shows.

Lodging tax receipts are an indicator of tourist visits because the money translates into people staying in motels or inns, so the statistics can also help identify places with few paying visitors.

Clay County — located in rural eastern Alabama without any interstate highway access — had the lowest lodging tax take in the state, just $719. Two other counties also had less than $5,000 in total lodging tax revenues, Lamar and Washington.

Other counties could be just as low or lower, but the state revenue agency doesn’t release statistics from counties with only one business that collects lodging tax. That means no figures were available for last year for Barbour, Bullock, Hale and Lowndes counties.

To read this article online, go to:


‘Stony the Road We Trod’: Teaching teachers about civil rights movement

By Alyse Nelson, Montgomery Advertiser, July 1

Alabama Tourism Department Director Lee Sentell met with this group while they were in Montgomery.

Thirty-six teachers toured Montgomery Thursday in order to learn about the civil rights movement and bring these lessons back to their classrooms nationwide.

The workshop, which is a weeklong tour of the state, was funded through a $179,340 grant given by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to its state affiliate, the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF).

How the project grew

“Stony the Road We Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” was created by project director Martha Bouyer after she attended a similar program led by the lead scholar of the workshop, Glenn Eskew.

“At the end of the project I learned so much and I wanted an outlet,” Bouyer said. “It was like, ‘what do I do with all of this knowledge?’”

At the time, Bouyer was a Jefferson County teacher and she noted problems she saw that inspired her to reach out to other teachers about the civil rights movement.

“At the same time the state of Alabama changed how it taught American history,” she said. “Whereas before we would try to teach all of the history, whether that was the 6th grade or the 11th grade, every year, so teachers never got to modern history and they certainly did not get to the civil rights movement. And I knew that teachers in my particular school district had not been trained in how to teach that history.”

“Stony the Road We Trod” began with a grant through the AHF just for Jefferson County schoolteachers, and then after a couple of years she applied for one through the NEH as it grew in popularity.

“As the project went on, the U.S. State Department began to send teachers from emerging democracies from around the world to participate,” Bouyer said. “So we had teachers from Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Columbia, from all over – so the project keeps growing and the more the information gets out, then the more people want to come to Alabama.”

She said that this was an indication to her of the importance of the events that took place in the state during the civil rights movement.

“I think it gives you an idea – people want to know. They come here for answers to questions that maybe they really haven’t formulated in their minds and they’re trying to find answers.” – Martha Bouyer

Selecting teachers to participate

Bouyer said there were over 250 final applications for 72 slots this year. The selection process is rigorous as subject and grade level taught is considered to bring the widest variety of teachers to Alabama.

“I don’t want them to think that we just teach history in a vacuum,” Bouyer said. “So I wanted art teachers, teachers who teach media courses, technology, history, math teachers even. If we can get teachers to connect across curricular borders, just imagine what we can do with teaching and learning.”

Daniel Gattuso, a school librarian from Maryland that teaches at Washington Grove Elementary School, was one in attendance for the workshop this week.

“I was always interested in learning more about the civil rights movement in the 60s and then this opportunity presented itself to go to Alabama and learn about all of the civil rights struggles that had taken place,” Gattuso said. “I hope to take back the memories of the people and the places I’ve met and seen; I can share with my students all the great information we’ve learned here at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the different sites we’ve visited.”

To read this article online, go to:


A record number of appointments at the Alabama booth at IPW

An exhausted team of Alabama tourism officials are now back in Alabama after a meeting with a record number of tour operators, journalists and officials with Visit USA and Brand USA at the U.S. Travel Association’s IPW tourism marketplace in New Orleans.  In all, 114 appointments were held over a three-day period ending on June 22.   

“This is the most meetings the Alabama delegation has had at IPW,” said Grey Brennan, the person in charge of international efforts for the Alabama Tourism Department. “Tour operators from around the world were talking with tourism representatives from across Alabama on ways to include Alabama cities in their southern USA itineraries that sell to tourist.”

For the first time ever, the Alabama booth was a full 30 linear feet, the largest allowed for a single organization.  The booth included a full backdrop showcasing the state’s top attractions.

Taking appointments in the Alabama booth were Grey Brennan and Rosemary Judkins of the Alabama Tourism Department, Sara Hamlin of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Jennifer Moore of the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center, Susan Adams of the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, Ron McConnell of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, Tami Reist of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, and Tina Jones of the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission.  Tom White of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center was set to attend, but was not able to do so.

Janin Nachtweh, Alabama Tourism Partnership for Germany, and Della Tully, UK In-Market Representative for Alabama Tourism, were also taking appointments in the booth.

In addition to the IPW show, Alabama tourism officials escorted several tour operators on research trips to destinations in the state.  Cities visited were Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Muscle Shoals/Florence, Huntsville and Fort Payne.

The IPW marketplace was also the location of a Travel South USA International and Board meeting.  Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell is a board member of Travel South USA and was present for the board meetings and international update.

For more information on Alabama’s international efforts, contact


Travel South USA releases international research data

Alabama Ranks in the top half in terms of international visitors to the region

International visits growing faster than domestic

In a special meeting at the IPW marketplace, the Travel South USA organization presented research on international tourism to State Tourism International Committee members and representatives.  The research shows global tourism to the USA is growing faster than domestic tourism.

Information released by Tourism Economics at the Travel South USA meeting shows global long-haul travel growing dramatically.  In 1995, the global market was only 13% the size of the U.S. domestic overnight travel market.  It now stands at 21% and is expected to reach 24% by 2020, according to the report.

Overseas visits to the United States increased at a compound annual growth rate of 3.2% from 2007 to 2014 in the Travel South region while hotel room demand grew at only 1.3%.  In Alabama, the difference in growth rates was even more dramatic during the time period. In Alabama, the report shows overseas visits were up 6% while the hotel room demand was up less than 2% overall.

According to the report, Alabama is one of nine Travel South member states that host more than 100,000 overseas visitors.  Overall, Alabama is No. 6 of the 12 Travel South member states in overseas visitors.  In order, the ranking are; Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia. This puts Alabama in the top half of Travel South states in ranking of international visitors.

The report shows that in 2014, Canada was the top international market to the Travel South member states, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany and France.  In Alabama, the top markets in 2014 were Canada, United Kingdom and Japan.  Germany and China are tied for fourth place in Alabama’s rankings.

Travel South USA is a marketing organization for the southern USA.  The board members are the state tourism director for each of the 12 member states which are; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

For more information on Alabama’s international efforts, contact


To support and defend: Hundreds turn out for enlistment ceremony, monument unveiling at Battleship Park

By Lawrence Specker,, July 2

“What a great day this was for all of us to honor all of those,” said Dr. Barry Booth late Saturday morning, as he unveiled the newest monument at USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.

The newly installed eight-foot bronze statue by area sculptor Casey Downing made it perfectly clear who Booth meant by “all of those:” Titled “The Recruit,” it depicts a man raising his hand as he takes the Oath of Enlistment into military service for the United States. It is a distinctive addition to the park’s catalog of monuments, and one that will not easily be overlooked, standing just to the right of the gangway climbed by visitors as they board the Alabama. On Saturday morning, dozens of park visitors watched from the gangway, joining the hundreds who stood watching on the ground, as Booth pulled away the plastic shrouding the statue.

Saturday morning brought a remarkable start to the July 4 weekend at Battleship Park: In addition to unveiling the statue, the park hosted an actual enlistment ceremony that was open to public viewing. The appeal of the event was so strong that by 9:30 a.m., traffic trying to enter the park was backed up in both directions along the Causeway.

Park officials eventually cleared the bottleneck by waiving the $2 park entry fee. By this point, the main parking lot was full and visitors were turning to the grassy lots already roped off for parking at Monday night’s fireworks show. A capacity crowd filled the park’s aircraft pavilion to observe the enlistment ceremony; Rhonda Davis, the park’s director of sales and marketing, said park officials believed more than 800 people were on hand.

Casey Downing, the sculptor, said he drew on a variety of influences as he designed his statue. One was his own enlistment in 1967, when he traveled to Montgomery on his way to take the oath. He served as a helicopter instrument flight instructor for the Navy. Another was the desire to honor all branches of the service in all eras. Enlistment is a common point, he said, because people are still civilians up until the moment they take the oath.

“It’s really a wonderful thing to be able to do this kind of thing for the community you grew up in,” the sculptor said.

As he spoke to the crowd at the enlistment ceremony, Col. Patrick Downing (Ret.), the chair of the USS Alabama Battleship Commission, said that “the statue of a young man taking the oath is timeless.” The fact that he is in civilian clothing “signifies that he is of the people” he is vowing to protect.

And while a recruit might be expected to be nervous, Col. Downing also described the moment of enlistment as a moment of great clarity: “It is a moment when one makes a commitment to support and defend the Constitution,” he said.

Aubrey Fuller, immediate past chair of the USS Alabama Battleship Commission, made sure to give credit not only to the recruits taking the oath on Saturday, but to their parents as well. “Moms, dads, this day is a tribute to you as well … Thank you for your example, thank you for your patriotism.”

More than 100 recruits, representing various branches of the service, took the oath at Saturday’s ceremony. Downing invited the veterans in the crowd to stand with them and recite it again as well, and many did, including a group of 20 or more World War II veterans wearing gold Honor Flight shirts and 105-year-old WWII veteran Maj. John Jacobson, who received a special ovation when recognized by Booth.

“They saved our world, they saved our nation and they’re the greatest heroes of our time,” said Booth of the WWII veterans. (Several park officials, including its executive director, Maj. Gen. Janet Cobb, described Booth as the driving force behind the monument and Saturday’s enlistment ceremony.)

At the other end of the age spectrum, the children in the crowd were given small flags and asked to write the name of a veteran and their branch of service on them. During the program, the children were invited to come to the front and read out the names they’d written. Several dozen took part.

Afterward, World War II veteran Bob Spielmann, one of those wearing his Honor Flight shirt, described the statue as “a great thing.” He was in training as a Navy pilot when the war ended, and he recalled taking the oath in Brooklyn.

“It’s something you never forget,” he said.

He said the park’s new monument is unique because so many honor fighting men, generals and the fallen. “This is a civilian,” he said.

“We’re just blown away at the turnout,” said park director Cobb. “We’re really thrilled that this many people came out. We’re thinking about making it an annual event.”

To read this article online, go to:


There once was a couple from England…

Couple who chose “wrong” Birmingham now coming to the American South


Richella Heekin’s story of booking a dream trip to Las Vegas through the wrong airport went viral earlier this year. 


Heekin had saved for months to surprise her boyfriend, Ben Marlowe, with the birthday present of a trip to the Nevada gambling paradise.  She was heartbroken when she learned that, instead of the BHX airport in Birmingham, England, she had booked the flight through the BHM airport in Birmingham, Alabama. 


The couple’s story, though, now promises to have a happy ending…along with a surprise detour through the Birmingham of the American South.


When the story went viral, Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson stepped up with free roundtrip airfare from Manchester to Las Vegas, along with a complimentary hotel stay.  He was quoted as making the disparaging remark, “Manchester is a lot better than Birmingham, Alabama.”


Not a city to take maligning lightly, Birmingham reacted quickly with a band of city boosters inviting the British/Irish couple—Heekin is Irish—to visit Birmingham, Alabama.  They happily accepted and a generous donor stepped up to fly them from Las Vegas to their Southern destination for a two-day whirlwind tour August 16 and 17.


The couple will be squired around the city to sample Birmingham’s award-winning culinary destinations and thriving craft beer breweries.  They also are scheduled to explore the Ziplines and other adventures at Red Mountain Park and to sightsee in the city center on new Zip Bikeshare bikes.  Another highlight will be a VIP visit to Birmingham’s internationally renowned Porsche Driving Experience at Barber Motorsports Park.


At a quick stop by downtown Regions Field baseball park, the couple will throw out the first pitch for the Birmingham Barons game.  Then it’s on to a concert by American singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis at Iron City, one of Birmingham’s most popular music venues.  Their visit coincides with Lewis’s local performance on her nationally-acclaimed “Voyager Tour.”


“Birmingham, Alabama, is in the midst of an astonishing rebirth, so this is a great time for Richella and Ben to visit us,” Tom Cosby, a local city booster and instigator of the couple’s trip said.  “We could not have put this trip together without the generosity of our local attractions and restaurants, along with an outpouring of help from stalwart donors.”


Cosby has worked closely with the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, Big Communications, REV Birmingham, the Alabama Tourism Department and Stewart Perry Construction Company to arrange the trip.


Fifty amazing secret places and top tips from the US

By Jordan Payson, Escape, July 3

If you’re planning a holiday to the U.S., you also probably have a bucket-list of big-ticket attractions to see.

But for every Disneyland, Statue of Liberty or Yosemite National Park there’s a host of lesser known treasures – historic sites, areas of natural beauty or just fun places to eat – that locals love and love to recommend.

Every state has its secrets … here are 50 of them.


Tom’s Wall

Tom’s Wall is a tribute that Tom Hendrix created to his Native American great-great-grandmother. She is the only person known to have walked back home to Alabama after escaping the Trail of Tears forced removal.

Bonus tip: With more than 1450 vintage motorcycles and race cars that date back to 1904, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham remains the largest motorcycle museum in the world.

To read this entire article online, go to:


Bellingrath Gardens and Home earns Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence

Bellingrath Gardens and Home has received glowing reviews from visitors on, resulting in the website’s top tourism award for 2016, the Certificate of Excellence.

TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, gives a Certificate of Excellence to accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travelers. Bellingrath Gardens and Home also received the award in 2015.

To qualify for the Certificate of Excellence, a business has to maintain an overall TripAdvisor rating of at least four stars out of five, as well as have a minimum number of reviews and have been listed on the site for at least 12 months.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home, located in south Mobile County, is the legacy of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, who purchased the property on Fowl River in 1918 and developed it during the 1920s and 1930s.  The Gardens opened to the public in 1932.  The Home, completed in 1936, is marking its 80th anniversary in July 2016.

To select the attractions for the Certificate of Excellence, TripAdvisor uses a proprietary algorithm that takes into account the quality, quantity and “regency” of reviews submitted by visitors on the travel website over a 12-month period, according to information from TripAdvisor.  The business’s tenure and ranking on the site’s Popularity Index is also taken into account.


McConnell retires from Visit Mobile

Ron McConnell has announced that he will be retiring from his position as Vice-President of Convention Sales for Visit Mobile.  McConnell has served the Hospitality and Tourism industry for more than 20 years and has been a valued and knowledgeable partner for the Visit Mobile Community.

McConnell began his CVB career in Mobile as Tourism Sales Director, with a focus on growing the Group Tour Travel market.  He quickly became recognized as the go-to person in Mobile for the Group Tour market with his regular attendance at American Bus Association, National Tour Association, International Pow Wow, Alabama Motorcoach Association, Travel South and many partnerships with the State of Alabama Tourism team.  Several years ago, he was promoted to Vice President of Convention Sales where he led a team of seven dedicated people committed to achieving their individual goals each year.

Visit Mobile is very appreciative of McConnell’s work ethic, dedication, team work and his commitment to marketing Mobile around the country.  McConnell stated that the time spent with Visit Mobile “has been an honor” and one that he will always remember.  

A national search for a new Vice-President of Convention Sales will begin as early as next week.  McConnell will remain with Visit Mobile until December 31 to assist with the transition. 


Send in anniversary events for 2017

The Alabama Tourism Department would like to highlight any state events/festivals having major anniversaries next year (10th, 25th, 50th, etc.) in our 2017 Vacation Guide.  If any of your local events are celebrating one of these major anniversaries next year please send the name of the event, its anniversary, the dates for 2017 and a short description to Pam Smith at                                     

Please send these in by July 15. 


Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events

Aug. 20 – 23                           Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism            Orange Beach

Sept. 7 – 9                               STS Fall Forum                                                          Birmingham


Tourism Tuesdays is a free electronic newsletter produced by the Alabama Tourism Department. It contains news about the state tourism department and the Alabama tourism industry.

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Alabama Tourism Department