Tourism Tuesdays Aug. 20, 2019

Alabama tourism industry grows 8.5 percent a year

Labor Day celebrations across Alabama

Why you should plan a trip to Billy Reid’s Shindig in Florence

International paddle athletes buzz about new Alabama race

Flora-Bama: Why the iconic Gulf Coast beach bar is worth putting on your bucket list

JoAnne Bland brings history to life in Selma

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website



Alabama tourism industry grows 8.5 percent a year
The dollars spent by people visiting Alabama destinations grew by an average of 8.5 percent each year for the past 15 years, reaching $15.5 billion in 2018, state tourism director Lee Sentell announced Sunday at the annual tourism conference in Huntsville. During the period, tourism expenditures increased 128 percent.

Sentell said the three counties with the largest appeal to tourists grew by more than 10 percent a year, topping the state average by close to two percentage points. Baldwin County, home to the state’s white beaches, topped all areas with 154 percent growth. Tourists spent $4.7 billion there last year.

The Huntsville/Madison County area ranked second with a growth of 149 percent during the period, with last year’s spending at $1.4 billion. Mobile County was close behind with an accumulated growth of 148 percent and last year’s spending at $1.25 billion.

Montgomery County was fifth with an accumulated growth of 130 percent in 15 years and spending at $971 million in 2018.

The year 2018 was the second year in a row that expenditures grew by more than a billion in a single year, Sentell said.

Overall, tourists paid $954 million in state and local taxes. An estimated 198,000 jobs, some 7.3 percent of all non-agricultural employment, were generated by travel and tourist activities.

Economists said taxes paid by tourists last year saved the average Alabama family $507.

Labor Day celebrations across Alabama
Great food and live entertainment highlight Labor Day celebrations across Alabama. Events include everything from the Coon Dog Cemetery Labor Day Celebration in Cherokee to the annual Moon Pie eating contest in McCalla.

Festivals over Labor Day weekend include the Sweet Tater Festival in Cullman, the St. William Church Seafood Festival in Guntersville and the Shoals Area Labor Day Festival in Tuscumbia. Families can also enjoy live music at Lake Martin in Eclectic or tour a World War II ship in Decatur.

The Alabama Tourism Department suggests the following Labor Day events. For a complete calendar of events listing see

Cherokee – Coon Dog Cemetery Labor Day Celebration
Sept. 2 at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard. Celebration of “Troop”- the first coon dog buried at the cemetery. More than 300 graves freshly decorated. Live bluegrass music, buck dancing, liar’s contest. BBQ and drinks are available. Free admission.

Cullman – Sweet Tater Festival
Sept. 1-2 at Smith Lake Park. Featuring arts & crafts along with food vendors, sweet potatoes, music, a car show and lots of family activities. Free admission.

Decatur – USS LST 325 tours
Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at Ingalls Harbor. The USS LST 325 is one of the last of her kind and is the only working LST in WWII configuration in the United States. The USS LST 325 participated in the invasion and occupation of Sicily in 1943 and the Normandy Invasion in 1944. The ship is now operated as a floating museum that sails to inland river cities. Admission charged.

Eclectic – Labor Day Weekend Concert
Sept. 1 at the Amphitheater on Lake Martin. Hear great music during the final event of the summer concert series with Corey Smith. Admission charged.

Guntersville – St. William Catholic Church Seafood Festival
Aug. 31 at the Foley Center. Drive-thru opens at 7:30 a.m. for purchasing quarts of gumbo and boiled shrimp. Dine-in opens at 10:30 a.m. for purchasing Creole-style gumbo, Cajun boiled shrimp, boiled crawfish, catfish dinners and barbecue chicken dinners. Free admission.

Huntsville – Caribbean Day at the Park
Sept. 1 at Stoner Field Park. Caribbean culture, cuisine and lifestyle festival. Arts & crafts, Caribbean board games, arts and crafts, live reggae band and dancing. Free admission.

McCalla – Annual Labor Day Celebration & Moon Pie Eatin’ Contest
Sept. 2 at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. Featuring games, food and Moon Pie eating contest. Admission charged.

Section – Section Labor Day Festival
Sept. 2 at the Section Community Park. All day musical entertainment, homemade ice cream, BBQ, horseshoes, dominoes and a street dance. Free admission.

Scottsboro – Arts in the Park
Sept. 1 at King-Caldwell Park. More than 150 artisans and craftsmen participate in this juried show and offer their works for sale. Children’s activities, food and live Admission charged.

Tuscumbia – Shoals Area Labor Day Festival
Sept. 2 at Spring Park. This is the oldest Labor Day event in Alabama. A parade at 11 a.m., prizes, food and live music. 256-383-0783. Free admission.

Why you should plan a trip to Billy Reid’s Shindig in Florence
From the article by Mary Hance on

Life in Florence, Alabama, isn’t exactly normal. With two boutique hotels, farm-to-table fine dining, new-school coffee shops and yoga studios, a Grammy-recognized record label, and historic but affordable homes, this small town is populated by creatives from musicians and visual artists to entrepreneurs and tech workers. The energy they bring is the reason why Billy Reid, the CFDA Award winning fashion designer continues to make his home and work in this corner of Alabama.

And every August, he brings more of that energy to Florence for his annual celebration, Shindig. What started as a way to show off the Shoals (the area home to Florence), has now become a hybrid style-music-food festival that brings in just as many big names out of state as it shows off in town. This year’s Shindig, which will be held August 23-25, enters a new decade with its 11th iteration and a roster filled with events including a concert with Margo Price in a historic theatre with only a little more than 700 seats.

This year’s schedule also features a Friday night performance with headliners Jack White and The Raconteurs, who haven’t performed together in almost a decade. Artists who will perform in Wilson Park include the Blind Boys of Alabama, Drivin’ N Cryin’, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. On Saturday, there will be a celebrity baseball game where Jack White’s team will face off against Billy’s followed by another concert, headlined by Nashville’s own Margo Price. And as always, the weekend features dinners and brunches created by James Beard Award-winning chefs including Justin Devillier, Michael Fojtasek, and John Currence. Billy Reid will also present his Spring/Summer 2020 runway show on Saturday afternoon.

For the complete article please see

International paddle athletes buzz about new Alabama race
From the article by Laura Gaddy on

Four decades ago on a rural Alabama creek, a 10-year-old boy launched a canoe and began a journey that would one day lead him to a serendipitous experience in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Now a 50-year-old river trail promoter, that boy, Jay Grantland, is a canoe guide so experienced he can use the gauges on his 20-year old Wenger watch to clock the speed of paddlers to determine how long it will take to reach their destination. He has paddled thousands of miles on Alabama’s waterways over rapids, on flat water, on slow-moving streams and to destinations with ecological and historical gems like Native American rock paintings and rare flowers and birds. As the Executive Director of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, a 5,000-mile river trail system, Grantland’s latest challenge involves promoting the Great Alabama 650, an adventure-packed, cash-rewarded paddle race that he hopes will launch international interest in paddle sport opportunities in Alabama.

In late June, Grantland and Race Director Greg Wingo, a 40-something ultra-marathon runner and endurance sports aficionado, made a 6,000-mile trek to Whitehorse, Canada to promote the Great Alabama 650. Grantland and Wingo had been in town for less than 12 hours when they were seated across from each other at a tiny wooden table outside Baked, local coffee house, when they learned that word of the Alabama race had already reached Whitehorse.

“We were there having a conversation with a gentleman about trail running and being from Alabama,” Wingo said, recalling the moment. “Another man sitting nearby, named Walter, turned to us and said, “have you heard of the Great Alabama 650?” To which we said, “yes we’re the ones putting on that race.”

The Great Alabama 650 will be the longest paddle-only race in the United States and the longest annual paddle-only race in the world, second in total distance only to the Yukon 1000, which takes place every other year. The Great Alabama 650 will take place on the core section of the Alabama Scenic River Trail and will take paddlers from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a no-frills race,” Wingo said. “It’s more closely aligned with an adventure race than the typical paddle race.”

Participants in the Great Alabama 650 will paddle through long stretches of wilderness as well as some of Alabama’s towns and cities, including Montgomery, the state’s capital. They will portage around 11 dams, encounter a bout of whitewater and face-off with the headwinds from the Gulf of Mexico on the glassy, flat waters of the Mobile Bay. Along the way they will encounter a range of wildlife, to include everything from alligators to otters.

“Our race is going to continually test every one of our competitors right to the very end,” Wingo said. “Racers will be battling the course as much as they will be battling other racers, if not more.”

Walter, the man from the coffee shop, was one of the racers in Whitehorse to compete in the Yukon River Quest, a long-distance paddle race that takes place on the off-years between Yukon 1000 races. The Great Alabama 650 promoters had timed their trip to coincide with the Yukon River Quest so they’d have a chance to meet paddle athletes and race organizers.

More racers in Whitehorse discovered that Grantland and Wingo were representing the Great Alabama 650 and affirmed what Walter, the paddler at the coffee shop, had already indicated: news of the race in Alabama had already spread to the paddle community in the Pacific Northwest.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how many people were not only aware of the race, but really excited about it,” Wingo said. “Many of the world’s toughest paddlers will get a chance to experience the beauty and challenge of our Alabama waterways during the Great Alabama 650. We are excited to put on the longest paddle race in the country.”

To learn more about the Great Alabama 650, visit, or use the hashtag #AL650 to find the race on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Interested paddlers can also find out more about the Alabama Scenic River Trail at, or by using the hashtag #OnTheASRT on social media channels.

For the complete article please see

Flora-Bama: Why the iconic Gulf Coast beach bar is worth putting on your bucket list
From the article by Mary Hance on

People know Flora-Bama as a popular, wild and woolly coastal canteen straddling the state line of Florida and Alabama, but the bar is so much more than that.

This iconic oceanfront bar, which has been around since 1964, has a lot going on. Not only is it open 365 days a year, but there are five stages of live music, 30 bars pouring all kinds of concoctions and three restaurants serving burgers, seafood and snacks.

There are two well-attended Sunday church services, lively afternoon bingo, boat rentals and assorted, oddball special events throughout the year.

An estimated one million people visit Flora-Bama every year. And many of us who have vacationed in the Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Perdido Key and Pensacola areas have darkened the doors of this one-of-a-kind honky-tonk more than once.

Flora-Bama is an easy place to like
With no cover charge during the day and a modest $5 cover after 6 p.m., checking out Flora-Bama is a worthy bucket list goal, provided you have a sense of humor and don’t mind being around a little rowdiness or in a room with hundreds of brassieres hanging from the ceiling.

“The Flora-Bama is a must-see for anyone visiting the area,” said Jeff Pennington, co-founder of Nashville-based Pickers Vodka, which is Flora-Bama’s best-selling vodka.

Pennington described Flora-Bama as “a true American treasure” and marveled that it manages to attract all ages and all walks of life all day, every day.

“We work with bars around the country, and Flora-Bama is probably the most unique. It is a laid back beach bar,” Pennington said, adding that, from a business perspective, “it is a well-oiled machine.”

Coastal LivingCNN and Southern Living have all named Flora-Bama — also known as “America’s Last Great Roadhouse” and ground zero of the “Redneck Riviera” — among the best beach bars in the country, and even the world.

Touring the 20,000-square-foot Flora-Bama bar, marketing director Jenifer Parnell said the Flora-Bama complex located on the original site on the Gulf of Mexico can accommodate as many as 2,500 patrons at a time. It consists of the main bar, the Bra Bar, the oyster bar, the tent bar, the top deck and the gift shop.

Across the street, on the Intracoastal Waterway, is the newer Flora-Bama Yacht Club, Old River Grille, Package Store and the Flora-Bama Marina that rents pontoon boats, jet skis, paddle boards and kayaks and offers fishing “adventures.”

Affordable food and drink
Flora-Bama’s best-selling drink is its Bushwacker, a $7.50 “adult frozen milkshake” which contains five types of liquor. Nashville’s Pickers Vodka goes into about 250,000 Flora-Bama drinks a year. Domestic beers are $3.75.

Food in all three restaurants is affordable. At the Oyster Bar and Grill, the Bama burger with fries is $12; a dozen oysters is $13; a fried shrimp basket is $11; and a half pound of peel-and-eat shrimp is $12. The food is served as “grab and go” to pick up and eat it anywhere you want.

Count on live music
The Flora-Bama offers live music between 11 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. daily. Hours on the five stages vary, and performers include locals, songwriters and up-and-comers. Big names who have played on Flora-Bama stages include Jimmy Buffett, Billy Currington and John Rich.

There was a free Kenny Chesney concert on the Flora-Bama beach in 2014 that drew 40,000 people and 400 boats. Coming up is a beach concert featuring Justin Moore and Easton Corbin on Sept. 1.

Oddball events
Oddball events highlight the Flora-Bama calendar.
In the annual Interstate Mullet Toss every April, competitors throw dead mullet, a local fish, across the Alabama-Florida state line. It attracts more than 30,000 people, and the mullet used in the event are donated to a local zoo to feed animals.

The Polar Bear Plunge, which has been going on for 35 years, attracts close to 5,000 people who get the new year started by running into the frigid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Santa lands on the beach via helicopter at Christmas time. The Easter Bunny makes a similar grand entrance and hides eggs on the beach. There is also a Fishing Rodeo and an annual Chili Cook-off. Coming up is the Miss Flora-Bama Bikini Contest Finale on Aug. 31.

Flora-Bama location
Flora-Bama gets considerable attention for its longstanding “do it on the line” motto, which presumably refers to its distinctive location on the state line of the western border of Florida and the eastern border of Alabama. It is located where Orange Beach, Alabama, meets Perdido Key, Florida.

The complex is spread across both sides of two-lane Perdido Key Drive.

‘Relax and just have fun’
Parnell said Flora-Bama has welcomed visitors from all over the U.S., as well as Australia, Belgium, Jamaica and other countries.

When asked what she thinks makes Flora-Bama popular with visitors, she said, “When they walk in, their guard comes down. They relax and just have fun without any worries.”

“It’s a place where all walks of life are in the same area hanging out together, making memories, and having a good time. Then you add in the amazing musical talent we have daily and our beautiful white sandy beaches, which is just icing on the cake.”

Yes, this beach bar deserves its irrefutable notoriety. I’ll definitely be going back before too long.

For the complete article please see

JoAnne Bland brings history to life in Selma
From the article by Michelle Matthews on

JoAnne Bland is cutting up okra at the round table in her sparkling clean kitchen as the TV blares one of those courtroom shows that air in the afternoons. Her eyes are soft brown, her close-cropped hair tinged with gray. Her voice is expressive, deep and distinctive, just like it sounds on “White Lies,” a podcast released earlier this summer focusing on the murder of the Rev. James Reeb two days after Bloody Sunday in March of 1965 in JoAnne’s hometown of Selma.

JoAnne runs Journeys for the Soul, a tour agency that focuses on Selma’s history. She’s featured prominently in the first and last episodes of the seven-part series, giving the hosts context as they try to figure out who killed Reeb. Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, both journalists from Alabama, spent three years visiting Selma, trying to tie up the loose ends of the murder that took place there more than a half-century ago.

In the podcast, as she drives around with Brantley and Grace, she points out the ghost sign on the brick wall that used to be Tepper’s department store. She tells them that when she was a child growing up in Selma, she had to enter the store through the basement. Many years later, as an adult, a city councilwoman once asked her if she remembered the “Christmas wonderland” on the top floor of Tepper’s.

“I had to remind her I was African American,” JoAnne says. “That was only for white kids.”

Since the podcast was released, JoAnne’s phone has been ringing off the hook. On Aug. 6, the 54th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, she spent the day with TV personality Andrew Zimmern for a segment that will air on MSNBC in November. He was in Selma, where the voting rights movement began, along with the Black Voters Matter “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” bus tour.

The Black Voters Matter Fund was co-founded by LaTosha Brown, who grew up on the next street over from JoAnne. “I’m so proud of her,” she says. “I’m proud of all the children I touched who went on to be productive members of society. I like to think a piece of them is me.”

In “White Lies,” JoAnne serves as a voice of reason, someone who knows Selma intimately and loves it despite its flaws. And she was delighted with the podcast when she listened to it. “I thought it was excellent and wonderful,” she says. “I haven’t gotten anything but positive feedback.” When someone asked her if she knew what she was doing by participating in the project, she said: “Y’all killed a man and didn’t do a damn thing about it!”

She’s blunt like that, and she can be funny, too. Her candor, mixed with her knowledge of the town and its abundance of civil rights history, makes her a popular figure in Selma. Her tours book far in advance.

“I just put the facts out there as I know them,” she says. “I tell the people what I think, and it seems to work.”

‘We’re still here’
Every year for the past 11 years, a group of students and community members from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire makes its way to the South, visiting historic sites in cities like Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. More than 1,700 people have participated in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, as the program is called.

Meeting JoAnne is always a highlight. Not only is she a Selma native, she was also one of the youngest people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. JoAnne was just 11 years old as she witnessed the beatings, the tear gas and the horses trampling people on that fateful day.

Fifty-four years later, she makes history come alive once again for those who take her tours. She sees 40 to 50 busloads of visitors per year, taking her guests on a journey that parallels her own life. She is, herself, living history, as are the other tour guides who assist her, including her older sister, Lynda Lowery, who turned 15 on the second day of the march to Montgomery.

“That’s my claim to fame, that all my guides were participants,” she says. “We made the history, and we’re still here.”

For years, JoAnne has been told that she needs to write a book. Several years ago, she and her sister preserved a few stories from their childhood in a self-published, spiral-bound book, “Stories of Struggle: Growing Up in the Segregated South.” Featuring a cover photo of JoAnne with President Barack Obama, the books sell for $10 each, with the proceeds going to Selma’s McRae Learning Center, which is run by their sister Jackie Maxey.

In one of the stories, JoAnne recounts a time when, as a child, she and her grandmother went to a crowded shoe store in downtown Selma to buy a new pair of shoes for Easter. An excited JoAnne slipped her foot into a shoe that was too big. A sales clerk insisted that her grandmother buy the shoes, using a racial epithet and saying JoAnne had stuck her “nasty” foot inside.

Another painful memory was when she would accompany her grandmother to pick up prescriptions at Carter’s Drugs. Standing outside, JoAnne recalls looking longingly through the window at the gleaming barstools along the long counter, where white children her age would spin around as they ate their ice cream cones. JoAnne couldn’t understand why she couldn’t do the same. After all, hadn’t her freedom been won in 1865

Her grandmother, a strong, proud woman who always stressed to JoAnne and her three siblings how special they were, told her that one day she’d be able to sit on a stool and eat ice cream, too. At that moment, JoAnne writes, she became a freedom fighter.

“I clearly understood that the ‘freedom’ that Grandma and the others were fighting for was not the same as the ‘freedom’ that Abraham Lincoln had given us,” she writes. “With Abraham Lincoln’s freedom, I did not have to pick cotton and live on a plantation. With Grandma’s freedom, I could sit on that stool.”

‘Go get that rock’
When she grew up, JoAnne served in the U.S. Army, returning to Selma in 1989 for what she intended to be some vacation time. She planned to pursue her dream of moving to New York City. But as one day turned into the next, she accumulated some debt and soon wasn’t able to move away after all. She has one son and four grandchildren.

She co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, but she grew tired of the paperwork involved and of sitting behind a desk. She wanted to be out there interacting with people and giving tours. Starting Journeys for the Soul in 2007 gave her the opportunity to touch the lives of young people and make what she hopes is a lasting impression on them.

JoAnne is convinced that Selma’s unique history is its strength. “Because Selma is my hometown, I know tourism could be a boom here,” she says. “We would have a boomtown economy.”

She likes to point out the city’s potential to those on her tours. One couple who took her tour returned to Selma, she says, and bought a house that they turned into a bed and breakfast.

She takes her guests to the beautiful, Spanish moss-strewn Live Oak Cemetery, which includes a privately owned section called Confederate Circle. She points out the irony that in 2000, the same year Selma elected its first African-American mayor, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a statue in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the cemetery. To her, dedicating a statue to Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in the same year a black mayor took office was a slap in the face, as she recounts memorably in “White Lies.”

JoAnne always poses with her tours on the steps of the Brown Chapel AME Church, which is right next to the George Washington Carver housing project where she was raised. She likes to take people to a patch of concrete behind the church where the marchers gathered in 1965 before heading to the bridge behind civil rights icons John Lewis and Hosea Williams.

She has each tour participant pick up a pebble here and hold it in their hand. “You need to connect to this history, to make sure it never, ever happens to anyone else, regardless of who they are,” she says in a video made during the most recent University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage. “I wanted you to hold that history in your hand. Because when you see injustice committed against anyone, anyone, no matter who they are, and you feel like you can’t do anything? Go get that rock. Hold it in your hand. And take from it the strength of the ordinary people who stood on that rock and made history.”

If she’s known for anything, JoAnne says, it’s for telling it like it is – “I’m brutally honest all the time,” she says – and nothing is off limits for discussion. “My idea is to change hearts. I try to do that with my tours. I truly believe it’s every generation’s responsibility to make the world a better place than they found it.”

She tells children on her tours that social justice issues are like jigsaw puzzles. “Everybody has a piece,” she says. “You complete the picture. You’re the most important piece.”

For the complete article please see

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