Tourism Tuesday May 19, 2020

Year of Natural Wonders, not viral tedium

Alabama lawmakers approve Ivey’s plan for $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds

Alabama luxury hotel group prepares for full reopening by emphasizing safety:
‘We take this seriously’

Alabama’s tourism economy benefits from Florida’s shutdown of vacation rentals

Carnival Fantasy projected to set sail out of Mobile on September 5th

Smithsonian promotes book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Tourism may take a hit but not set to lose momentum

Alabama’s Unclaimed Baggage Center is the home of lost suitcases with possessions sold for bargain prices

Alabama Tourism Partner Pointer


Year of Natural Wonders, not viral tedium
From the article by Chris McFadyen on

The largely rural or so-called “empty states” have begun to advertise their open spaces as a safety advantage in the upended world of virus crisis.

Alabama is among the states with a tourism campaign pushing natural wonders, but there is no spin on a virus, says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

“The message looks ahead, not back,” Sentell told the Wall Street Journal recently, in an article titled ‘Safe’ Becomes Rural Tourism Pitch to a Distancing Public.

The Alabama pitch is called “The Year of Natural Wonders,” a branding campaign planned well ahead of reports of a virus outbreak in China.

Sentell has overseen 12 such “Year of” campaigns, including food, small towns, the arts, barbecue, our places, music and a three-year crescendo of bicentennial drum beats.

A former newspaper reporter appointed to the tourism post by Gov. Bob Riley in 2003, Sentell says he saw the yearly campaign as a way to get local newspapers to cover the story by pitching to the editorial departments.

“We knew if we followed the sections of the newspapers — gardens, food, sports, outdoors — if we ran a campaign on a topic like that, they would automatically want to cover it,” Sentell explained to Business Alabama.

The yearly campaigns, says Sentell, have also been a way of spreading the tourism promotion dollars more fairly than by exclusively pitching the most visited attractions.

“We work very hard at focusing on small towns. Bob Riley and I grew up together in a small town, were in the nursery together in the First Baptist Church of Ashland. We had a dedicated interest in small towns.”

The “Year of” series also had the effect of peaking the interest of travelers who began anticipating the next year’s theme, Sentell says.

He says this year’s theme of natural wonders was suggested by the retired former head of the Alabama Department of Archives and history, Ed Bridges.

“We had a ‘soft launch’ of the campaign in the annual vacation guide in January, but, even then we were delaying a hard launch. And we certainly didn’t think the crisis was going to impact the world the way it has,” says Sentell. “I think our timing was perfect. Other states are scrambling to be relevant, and we have been in the marketplace since January.”

Avoidance of the virus subject was a natural, he adds.

“People have been watching so many TV commercials with a COVID message, from pizza to Lincolns, they are saturated with that. It makes no sense to spend the first third of a commercial telling people about something they already know.”

The 20 natural attractions highlighted in the campaign are Cheaha Mountain, Gulf Coast Beaches, Cathedral Caverns, The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Dismals Canyon, Natural Bridge, Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, Cahaba Lilies, DeSoto Caverns, Pinhoti National Recreation Trail, Rickwood Caverns, Wetumpka Crater, Little River Canyon, Sipsey Wilderness, Red Mountain, Noccalula Falls, Walls of Jericho Trail, Bankhead National Forrest, Cahaba River and the White Cliffs of Alabama.

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Alabama lawmakers approve Ivey’s plan for $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds
From the article by Mike Cason on

The Alabama Legislature today approved Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan for using $1.8 billion the federal government sent to the state for some of the enormous costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate voted 30-1 to approve Ivey’s amendment. That sent it to the House, which gave it final approval by a vote of 73-1.

The money comes from the CARES Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump.

The Republican governor’s plan prevailed despite some disagreement between her and GOP leaders in the Senate.

The plan does not list specific expenditures but directs the money into categories, such as reimbursements to state and local governments for coronavirus expenses, delivery of health care and related services to citizens, and support for citizens, businesses, non-profit and faith-based organizations directly affected by the pandemic.

The amendment says reallocation of funds between the categories would require unanimous consent of the House speaker, president pro tempore of the Senate, and the chairs of the Legislature’s four budget committees.

Ivey issued a statement commending lawmakers on approving the amendment, which she said would direct the money where it was intended.

“Our cities, counties and state, as well as places like our nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges have incurred many legitimate expenses because of COVID-19,” the governor said. “I thank the members of the Alabama Legislature for supporting this amendment and for ensuring this money helps the people of Alabama who have been harmed by this disease.

“While no one could have predicted COVID-19, it is easy to conclude this pandemic has touched every aspect of our daily lives. I assure the people of Alabama that we will be with them at every step moving forward. Together, we will recover, and we will get Alabama back on her feet.”

Ivey also announced that she had signed into law the education and General Fund budgets for next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Lawmakers passed the budgets earlier this month, salvaging the final weeks of a legislative session that was interrupted for almost eight weeks because of the pandemic.

Today was the final day of the session.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the Senate was left out of developing the spending plan in the CARES Act amendment approved today, but urged his colleagues to pass it and send it on to the House.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get some 450,000 people back to work,” Marsh said before the vote. “We’ve got businesses that may or may not make it. We’ve got a lot of obstacles in front of us and we’ve got to deal with that.”

Marsh later told reporters that senators didn’t get a chance to participate in meetings between the House and the governor’s office to develop the plan.

“The Senate was excluded from that process and that was unfortunate,” Marsh told reporters. “But we have to look at the big picture here. We’ve got to get these dollars to the people that need them in the state. We want to expedite that as quickly as possible. So, it’s time just to move on.”

Marsh and GOP leaders in the Senate have worked closely with Ivey the last three years. But he said the relationship is now “strained.”

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said Senate Democrats were left out of the discussions but said he would be a “squeaky wheel” in making sure the money goes to where it can protect citizens from the spread of the virus.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he would ask the governor for an executive order adding Democrats to the list of legislators with some input over allocation of the funds.

“I know that there’s no better voice at the table for me but me,” Singleton said. “And we will be the squeaky wheel that screams out in the public the loudest because it is our people in the African-American community that are dying disproportionately more than anyone else from this COVID disease. We want to make sure that money is spent in the places that it’s going to help, not just our people but all Alabamians.”

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, was asked about Marsh’s statements that the Senate was excluded from talks between House leaders and the governor’s office on the amendment. McCutcheon said he and other House leaders reached out to the governor to keep discussions going on the COVID-19 money and because of concerns that the governor might veto the state budgets.

“The House was willing to step up and bring suggestions to the governor,” McCutcheon said. “We were not working against the Senate. We were not working in secret. We were just doing our job as a House body.”

Ivey announced the plan Thursday in a proposed amendment to a bill passed by the Legislature on the COVID-19 funding. That came after days of friction between the governor and some legislative leaders about use of the money.

Lawmakers had the option of accepting Ivey’s plan or passing the bill again without her amendment.

Without the Ivey amendment, the bill would have put $200 million of the $1.8 billion under the governor’s control. Legislative leaders said their intent was to return in a special session called by Ivey to allocate the rest of the money.

Federal guidelines say the money can be used for expenses caused by the pandemic. But officials have said there is some uncertainty over how that is interpreted.

Disagreement between the governor and legislative leaders surfaced May 7 when Ivey criticized what she called a “wish list” that included $200 million for a new State House, as well as 15 other proposals. Marsh said he helped develop the list at the governor’s request. The State House idea was dropped from consideration, a spokesman for Marsh said last week.

The CARES Act money goes back to the federal government if the state does not spend it this year.

Ivey’s plan that was approved today:

•Up to $300 million to reimburse state agencies for expenses directly related to the pandemic.

Up to $250 million to reimburse local governments for expenses directly related to the pandemic.

Up to $250 million to support delivery of health care and related services to citizens because of the pandemic.

Up to $300 million to support citizens, businesses, and nonprofit and faith-based organizations directly impacted by the pandemic.
•Up to $53 million for reimbursement of equipment and infrastructure necessary for remote work and public access to functions of state government directly impacted by the pandemic, including the Legislature.
•Up to $300 million for expenses related to technology and infrastructure for remote instruction and distance learning.
•Up to $200 million for reimbursement of costs necessary to address the pandemic by the Department of Corrections.
•Up to $10 million for reimbursement of costs necessary to ensure access to courts during the pandemic.
•$5 million to reimburse the General Fund for supplemental appropriations to the Alabama Department of Public health during the pandemic.
•Up to $118 million for any other lawful purpose approved by the federal government.

Today was the final day of a legislative session that was put on hold from March 12 until May 4 because of the pandemic. The State House was essentially closed to the public during the final days of the session because of COVID-19.

House members wore masks and some moved to the gallery normally used by spectators to allow for social distancing. Most of the 28 members of the House Democratic caucus chose not to attend because of the health risks and because of concerns that it was too soon to pass the budgets because of uncertainty over state revenues.

Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, had not attended since the session resumed until today. She had written an open letter to Marsh explaining that she thought it was a mistake to meet in May because of the health risks and because it was too early to pass the budgets because of the uncertainty of revenues.

Figures said she came today partly because Ivey asked for her support on the amendment. Figures wore a cloth mask over an N-95 mask, goggles, and gloves. She said she was surprised to find many senators not wearing masks and talking face-to-face without observing six-foot social distancing.

“I was totally amazed,” Figures said. “And I felt that no wonder the people of Alabama are not taking this seriously. Because we as leaders, some of us in these leadership positions, are not leading by example.”

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Alabama luxury hotel group prepares for full reopening by emphasizing safety: ‘We take this seriously’
From the article by John Sharp on

Restaurants and spas that are a part of eight Marriott-brand hotels and conference centers owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama and managed by PCH Hotels and Resorts will begin reopening next week following long closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

The hotel’s team, in an email to and other media outlets, is emphasizing safety as it begins reopening restaurants, spas and pools this week.

“I want to make sure that people know the health and safety is a big deal,” said Tony Davis, president with PCH Hotels & Resorts. “We’ve been working from the governor’s orders, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association and with all of our brand partners to develop protocols we put into place. I want our guests to know … we take this seriously. We have looked at different partners in the industry to understand what we have … I want them to know it’s a safe experience.”

The hotels, located along Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, have been open since early April’s “Stay at Home” orders shuttered many businesses in Alabama. But the hotel services have been limited as occupancy rates, like those at hotels across the U.S., have dropped.

Hotels throughout the U.S. are just now safely reopening, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHL) recently introduced Safe Stay guidelines developed under the guidance of an advisory council that included a host of major hotel operators. Marriott International is among the hotels that are included within the council.

PCH Hotels & Resorts are utilizing similar standards such as sanitizing public areas every two hours, thorough cleaning and disinfecting of rooms before guests arrive and limiting the number of people entering a room during someone’s stay.

“Once a room is clean and disinfected, and someone checks in, no one will enter that room until you check out or until you request it,” said Davis. “It’s a safeguard we’ve put into play. Refreshed towels and room service, we leave at the door. If there is a special request, we’ll handle that.”

Employees will also be using personal protective equipment such as face coverings when appropriate. Housekeepers will wear face coverings, Davis said. Guests to the hotel spas will be welcomed to wear their own PPE’s such as masks and gloves, but it won’t be required.

The spa protocols include the following: All spa providers’ temperatures will be taken before they begin their shift, all providers will be wearing a mask during your spa visit, gloves will be changed after each guest, and all tools used during the spa service will be thoroughly sanitized.

Initially, the spas will be offering nail and hair services. Massages, facials and other spa services will be added at a later date.

The following are the reopening timelines for the restaurants and spas that PCH Hotels & Resorts oversees (From South to North in Alabama):

Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa (Point Clear): Bayside Grill and Bucky’s Bar reopened Friday. Spa at the Grand reopens on Wednesday. Massage and facials will begin on Wednesday as well.

Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel (Mobile): Fathoms Lounge reopened Tuesday.

Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa (Mobile): Joe Cain Café reopened on Monday. Spa at Battle House reopened on Tuesday. Massages and facials will begin on May 27. Pool reopens Friday, May 22.

Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa (Montgomery): House Restaurant reopened Friday. Spa at Montgomery reopens Friday, May 22 for massages. Hair, nails and facials will be added at a later date.

Marriott Prattville Hotel and Conference Center at Capitol Hill (Prattville): Oak Tavern reopened Friday.

Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort & Spa at Grand National (Opelika): Splash Bar reopened on Thursday. Spa at Grand National reopens Thursday, May 21 for hair, nails massages and facials.

Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa (Hoover): Clubhouse Restaurant reopened Tuesday. Spa at Ross Bridge reopened on Friday. Massages and facials begin Thursday, May 21.

Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa (Florence): Swamper’s Bar and Grille reopened Monday. Spa at the Shoals reopened on Thursday for hair. Massages, facials and nails begin on Thursday, May 21.

All the swimming pools have since reopened, except for the Battle House pool which opens on Friday, May 22. The Robert Trent Jones golf courses and resort tennis courts are available, where applicable.

Davis said safety protocols at the hotel pools will be a “collaborative effort” involving guests and employees, who will monitor people to ensure they are at a safe, six-foot distance from others.

“It’s a challenge to police that,” said Davis. “But we’re going to try and we’ll continue to have activities on the pool decks with the purpose of keeping people safe.”

Dr. Ellen Eaton, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said she’s not concerned about COVID-19 spreading by people swimming in a pool or spending time in a hot tub. She said the concern is with proximity to larger crowds that might congregate at pools, generally.

“Folks who are outside their immediate (family) circle and who are within 6 feet of each other for prolonged periods of time, those will be at the high risk encounters be it at a pool or a lounge or a pool bar or in the bathroom,” said Eaton. “It’s about the number of folks and the types of interactions they have.”

Davis said the rationale for the hotels starting up certain spa services (hair and nail) over others (like massages and facials) came down to a business decision of monitoring what interests guests. He said his company is trying to “balance the restrictions with business demand.”

Eaton said that guests to spas should be willing to ask questions of staff over how they are sanitizing rooms and are maintaining safety. She also said that guests should avoid shared amenities, such as beverages or snacks like fruit, and to avoid bathrooms.

Davis said that his hotel company has been strategizing the reopening plan for “two to three weeks” knowing that once the latest State Heath Order went into effect, on Monday, that “there would be two to four days to ramp up.”

“During this process, we have developed a re-onboarding program that every associate has to go through,” said Davis. “They are required to take online training classes and ‘how-to’ (instruction). They have to go through that protocol before hitting the floor.”

Davis said he’s anticipating a “summer rebound” in visitors, especially to resort properties like The Grand Hotel.

He’s hoping to make up for a lack of group travelers with more transient visitors. Conferences have canceled for the next two months, leaving the hotel business with “a lot of unknowns.”

“We know in the near term in May and in June, we have far too many cancellations,” said Davis. “We feel transient (visitors) can fill in the gaps.”

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Alabama’s tourism economy benefits from Florida’s shutdown of vacation rentals
From the article by Amy Hinote on

Alabama’s tourism economy is benefiting from Florida’s continued shutdown of vacation rentals as travelers who are unable to stay in vacation homes in the Florida Panhandle cross the state line for their beach vacations.

Last week, adjusted paid occupancy on the Alabama Gulf Coast increased 54 percent year over year, while Florida vacation rental businesses lost almost 80 percent of their bookings due to continued government restrictions on leisure travel in short-term rentals, according to data provided by Key Data.

“We are seeing short stays and last minute bookings,” Alabama-based Meyer Vacation Rentals president Michelle Hodges said during the recent Skift Forum on Short-term Rentals, “For us the (Alabama/Florida) state line is almost seamless, so it’s an interesting dynamic . . . we are picking up people who don’t want to give up their vacation and can’t get into their Florida property.”

Jason Sprenkle, cofounder of Florida-based 360 Blue Vacation Rentals and CEO at Key Data Dashboard said, “We were in this ‘we’re all in this together’ phase, and now we are in the ‘haves and have nots’ phase.”

“You see some states that are making a full recovery while others are left out, and the recovery is not being driven by demand; it’s being driven by government regulation,” Sprenkle continued. “For example, the demand in the (FL) panhandle has been at least as strong as the demand in Alabama, but they were able to experience the recovery, and in Florida, we were not.”

Here is a look at how reservation activity was affected from March 1 through May 15.

Vacation rental companies in Florida have been reaching out to Governor Ron DeSantis with pleas to reopen vacation rentals. DeSantis shut down short-term rentals in an executive order in March while keeping B&Bs, timeshares, motels, resorts, and hotels open. On Friday, the governor provided his reasoning for the first time, saying, “Some of them (vacation rental companies) are upset because we never shut down hotels in Florida. But part of the thing is I’ve got all these National Guard that I have to put up— I’ve got other people I’ve got to put up. So we needed to have an ability to have hotels–it’s a little bit different situation.”

Looking forward, Alabama’s early-mover advantage lasts through the latter half of June as the average booking window has decreased significantly due to COVID-19’s impact on traveler behavior.

Alabama’s vacation rentals are not the only beneficiary of DeSantis’ short-term rental shutdown. Florida’s hotels in the panhandle are also benefiting. As of May 16, only one Panama City Beach 2.5-star hotel showed availability for the weekend, and this non-beachfront budget hotel was priced at $359 per night.

Vacation rental professionals expected DeSantis to open vacation rentals on Friday. Instead the governor said counties could submit plans for reopening, saying, “What we are doing is telling counties, if you want short-term rentals, you request it to be authorized through the state and provide your safety plan. If you tell me you’re going to rent ’em out to people from NYC, I’m probably not going to approve that, okay? If you’re saying that you are going to rent it out to people in other parts of FL or something that would be manageable, or if there are ways in there that clearly you have an eye on safety, then I’m fine.”

Some counties have already submitted their plans to the state while others are expected to send theirs on Monday. All counties are hoping to be open in time to take bookings for Memorial Day Weekend which kicks off in less than a week.

Sprenkle added, “People are sitting outside waiting come in, but the destinations that unlock the doors first are reaping the benefits.”

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Carnival Fantasy projected to set sail out of Mobile on September 5th
From the article by Justin Moore on (WPMI)

Apparently, a lot of people are getting cabin fever and ready to sail out of Mobile once again. Andrea Miller with Sea It All Travel Agency said she has booked 300 cruises over the last three days.

Miller said the projected date for Carnival Fantasy to cruise out of Mobile again is Sept. 5. Carnival will sail other ships out of ports including Miami, Orlando and Galveston in early August.

“There are accommodations for lodging the night before, the night after, restaurants will be opened. Until the ports can provide that sort of accommodations for cruisers, there is kind of no point in sailing out of those particular ports,” Miller said.

The travel agent said people with canceled trips because of COVID-19 are re-booking and summer travelers are booking as well.

Carnival added these extra health standards to keep cruisers safe:

•More frequent sanitizing of tables, chairs, menus and other surfaces in restaurants and bars before use.
•More frequent open deck sanitation of sun loungers, outdoor furniture, mini-golf, sports equipment, handrails, etc.
•Additional sanitizing of frequently hand-touched surfaces in all public areas and lounges, all restaurants, lobbies, elevators, handrails, public phones, counters, public displays, medical centers, gangways, casino chips, games, slot machines, fitness machines, children’s toys, and security screening equipment, among others.
•Wherever possible, staff is serving guests at food stations, including the Lido buffet and ice cream machines. Where not possible due to layout restrictions or other locations such as condiment set-ups and salsa bars, dedicated personnel are posted to monitor these stations and service and ensure they are cleaned and sanitized in a timely manner. In any self-service areas that remain, serving utensils are replaced on a more frequent basis.
•Stateroom surfaces and fixtures are thoroughly cleaned up to twice daily with particular attention to bathrooms and surfaces frequently touched. All guest corridors including handrails and stateroom door handles are frequently sanitized. During instances that guests display flu-like symptoms, the stateroom will receive additional deep cleaning.
•Hand-washing sinks and/or hand sanitizing applications are available at the entrances to all dining rooms and the Lido buffet. A roster of guest communications detailing proper hand-washing techniques are visible throughout the ships and reiterated by staff and officers onboard.
•Additional hand sanitizers/dispensers have been placed in highly trafficked locations where there may not be hand-wash sinks available.
•The temperature in our washers and dryers has been increased for enhanced disinfection of laundered goods, including bedding, tablecloths, towels, napkins, etc.
•At night, a deep cleaning and disinfection process is conducted utilizing electro-static applications through specialized machines in highly-trafficked public areas (including all restaurants, the fitness center, spa, lido deck areas, promenade, casino, medical center, public restrooms, lounges, bars, lobbies, elevators, atrium, youth activity centers, arcade and all crew public areas).

“If you walk down a staircase and you touch a banister with your finger tip, some little guy in a uniform comes out of somewhere and he sanitizes that whole banister because you touched it,” Miller said.

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Smithsonian promotes book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott
In their weekly series spotlighting books that may have been lost in the news amid the COVID-19 crisis, the Smithsonian website has included a book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in their list of 5 books promoted during the week of May 12.

In writing about “Daughter of the Boycott: Carrying On a Montgomery Family’s Civil Rights Legacy” by Karen Gray Houston, the website stated:

Fred and Thomas Gray played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement, aiding the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott and battling segregation in court, respectively. In “Daughter of the Boycott,” journalist Karen Gray Houston reflects on her relatives’ legacy, detailing how her father, Thomas—a founding member of the Montgomery Improvement Association—“drove his car to pick up black passengers to keep them off the buses [and] make the boycott a success,” while his younger brother, Fred, spearheaded legal cases that expanded voting rights and “desegregated transportation, schools, housing and public accommodations.”

In addition to discussing her father’s and uncle’s work, Houston draws on interviews with individuals including the daughter-in-law of the manager whose bus line was targeted by protesters and the son of Aurelia Browder Coleman, lead plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle Supreme Court case that resulted in the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses. According to Kirkus’ review of “Daughter of the Boycott,” Houston’s “real coup” is a conversation with fellow Browder plaintiff Claudette Colvin, who refused to yield her seat to a white passenger nine months before Rosa Parks famously did the same.

To see the full story, go to

Tourism may take a hit but not set to lose momentum
From the article by Amy Passaretti on

Tourism had taken a hold on Tallapoosa County’s character and was well on its way to be a huge contributor to its economic and business success for 2020.

Data for tourism, including lodging, restaurants, retail, auto and transportation, has been escalating toward new heights for the past few years and reached record-breaking levels in 2019 statewide.

According to a press release by the Alabama Tourism Department, 28 million tourists spent a record of $16.8 billion while vacationing in Alabama last year, crediting the arrival of more than a million additional guests who spent a billion more dollars than the previous year.

This hopeful growth has come to a screeching halt due to restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic; however, local leaders aren’t as fearful of a devastating impact as some may think.

“Looking at the overall state, around our area it looks like we had growth across the board, except for a few close-by counties,” Tallapoosa County Tourism director Sandra Fuller said. “I think countywide people are focused on tourism and there is a lot of effort going into it.”

Alexander City Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ed Collari said he’s heard a mixed bag of comments in terms of local businesses hurting and doing well.

“Overall, I think Alabama will be hurt significantly,” he said. “But (Lake Martin) seems to be the place people want to social distance, and I think that may help balance out what we’re going to lose in hotel stays, lodging and restaurants being closed.”

Collari emphasized the community rallying around local businesses as a factor to their survival during the pandemic.

“The community recognizes the importance to support our businesses and are going out of their way to do so,” Collari said. “Hotels might be hurt right now but hardware stores, grocery stores, their numbers are at the best I’ve seen.”

The swelling of the lake population occurred much earlier this season, which may offset some economic losses in other areas as well.

“We have seen traffic we don’t normally see until June,” Russell Lands On Lake Martin vice president Roger Holliday said. “A lot of people have seen the lake as an opportunity to get out of higher-density areas.”

Holliday said Russell Lands’ restaurants are actually doing quite well with curbside and takeout offerings as they slowly ease into opening dine-in options.

“Restaurants are getting creamed because they’re doing a lot of takeout,” Holliday said. “As they begin to open up under the new guidelines, it’s actually going to hurt in terms of revenue because you can’t do 50% capacity dining at the same rate they’ve been doing takeout.”

While Holliday would not categorize Russell Lands as tourism per se, second-home owners and guests have certainly added to the human traffic on the lake.

“In terms of tourism meaning getting out of town, we’ve obviously seen huge numbers this spring versus anything we’ve seen before,” Holliday said. “The fact that we are a drive-thru destination is an advantage for us.”

Fuller echoed this statement and said the tourism organizations she spoke to agree road travel will be the main source of transportation for a while and being in rural Alabama is a huge benefit of that.

“We don’t get a lot of people flying into this area,” Fuller said. “We’ll have an in-driving-distance market and that’s who we’ll target to attract.”

Tallapoosa County saw a 10.8% increase in travel-related earnings from 2018 to 2019 and a 7.5% increase in travel-related expenditures.

“The additional jobs and tax revenue tourism brings into our community, we can take those dollars and use them for infrastructure and many more things,” Fuller said. “With the loss we had on jobs over the years, we’ve done a great job at bringing that back up.”

The Alabama Tourism Department stated travel and hospitality industries employed more than 200,000 workers for the first-time last year and it is estimated 140,706 direct jobs led to the creation of 64,906 additional or indirect jobs statewide.

State economist Dr. Keivan Deravi developed the economic impact analysis model the tourism department used. That analysis said every $116,120 in travel industry spending creates one direct job in Alabama.

It’s no secret the main driver of revenue and population is Lake Martin and it seems to be the place people are flocking to social distance.

“This is not data driven but observation, the lake is running at peak Fourth of July holiday season in April and May,” Collari said.

According to the Alabama Tourism Department, the central region of Alabama captured 24% of the state’s tourists’ expenditures and boasted 56,455 workers whose earnings grew by nearly 10% to a total of $1.47 billion.

Fishing tournaments attract thousands to Lake Martin each year and while those anglers are in town, they spend money elsewhere.

“Last year, there were very few weekends with no tournaments,” Fuller said. “And now we have a local owner of OGS and as a recreation group they do a great job bringing some outside tournaments in. Unfortunately right now that’s not happening but it continues to be a conversation and a huge draw.”

Wind Creek State Park hosts a majority of these tournaments and also has numerous attractions — including horseback riding, zip lining, mini golf and more — that draw in visitors and campers.

“When I talked to (superintendent) Bruce (Adams) at Wind Creek, he said numbers have been up with activities and a lot of people are comfortable coming in their own RVs but still getting out,” Fuller said. “They’ve had pretty consistent high numbers for two to three weeks. There are low numbers in other areas but certainly not there.”

Russell Lands maintains a steady wedding business throughout the year as well and Holliday said while he’s unsure of the number of weddings canceled or postponed, there will be a new normal for wedding receptions for the time being.

“We didn’t stick anyone with a deposit of course,” Holliday said. “But the typical deal now seems to be brides planning a reception for their first anniversary and still getting married in a small service with some family.”

A lot of wedding plans are still up in the air as everyone navigates the unknown of the future.

Entertainment options have been altered as these organizations await Gov. Kay Ivey’s new guidelines May 22.

“We canceled RxR Fest (over Memorial Day weekend),” Holliday said. “We just wouldn’t have time to plan it if the governor gave the OK for entertainment venues. We’re using an abundance of caution and canceled Friday on the Green’s first weekends but haven’t yet canceled through June assuming there will be more guidance.”

The chamber postponed Jazz Fest to August for similar fear of social distancing issues but knew the tourism draw was too high to cancel it altogether.

According to tourism strategies organizations, May to June is when more people will start traveling and the next wave of opened businesses will likely include attractions and waterparks, summer team sports, small outdoor events and the leisure domestic fly market.

“If we did not have this pandemic, we are already hitting record highs the state as a whole, I believe we would have continued to grow,” Fuller said. “I’m still optimistic that numbers will still look good when all is said and done.”

For the complete article please see

Alabama’s Unclaimed Baggage Center is the home of lost suitcases with possessions sold for bargain prices
From the article by Jonathan Thompson on Britain’s

Wonder what happened to that lost suitcase?

Chances are it was reclaimed by somebody else — in Alabama.

It is the fear that used to flit across everyone’s mind when they reached baggage claim before lockdown: What if my luggage hasn’t made it?

For thousands of holidaymakers every year, the answer to that last question was “Alabama”.

Because it’s there, in the tiny town of Scottsboro, that all the truly lost bags finally arrive.

Scottsboro (population 14,000) is an unlikely tourist hotspot but it is home to the Unclaimed Baggage Center — a megastore of misplaced possessions taken from tens of thousands of suitcases, rucksacks and duffel bags, all lost on commercial flights across the U.S.

Brenda Cantrell, the store’s brand ambassador, says: “Less than half a per cent of all lost luggage fails to make it back to its owners, but that’s still thousands of bags every year.

“And the vast majority of those make their way here. We have exclusive contracts with all the major U.S. carriers, making us the only store of this kind anywhere in the country.”

Legally, airlines have a duty to reunite luggage with their owners within 90 days, but if that fails, bags end up on a flatbed truck headed for Scottsboro, in the hilly countryside near the Tennessee border.

So frequent are these deliveries that the Unclaimed Baggage Center has around one million items on sale at any time, with 7,000 new items added to the shop floor every day.

The place itself — a colossal 40,000 square feet — feels more like a swanky department store than a musty charity shop, with items neatly separated into sections such as electronics, books, jewellery, watches — and even wedding clothes.

Some of the finds have been genuinely bizarre, such as a complete suit of armour, an Egyptian death mask and an entire suitcase filled with cheese.

Brenda says her personal favourite is a toss-up between a camera from the space shuttle (“we returned that to Nasa — they were very grateful”) and a live rattlesnake (“we released that sucker into the graveyard behind the store”).

During my visit, I’m shown a diamond bracelet worth £30,000.

Hauls of Cocaine
But the store’s current record for most expensive item is a £50,000 Rolex watch found a few years ago.

There are incredible bargains to be had here, too. One customer purchased a vase for a relatively steep £65 — only to discover it was actually worth £15,000.

Another bought a piece of art for £45, then later found out its true value of £20,000.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center has come a long way since it was founded by local entrepreneur Doyle Owens in 1970.

Not only is it a successful business, it is also one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Deep South, attracting more than a million visitors a year.

Even the in-house dry-cleaners has become the largest in the whole state, laundering 20,000 items a day.

Not everything makes the shelves, of course. There are strict quality guidelines — and roughly a third of everything is immediately binned, including all underwear.

Another third is donated to charity, with only the final third considered good enough to be processed, cleaned and sold — at anywhere from 20 to 80 per cent of its original price.

Electronics (the store has an enormous selection of laptops, mobile phones and tablets) are all completely wiped and reset before being put on sale.

There is, however, a dark underbelly to the world’s lost luggage.

Over the years, Unclaimed Baggage staff have discovered pretty much every drug under the sun, from sizeable stashes of crystal meth and heroin to monster hauls of cocaine.

“That’s when we get straight on the phone to the cops,” says Brenda. “We’ve got to know our local officers well over the years.

“Nobody tends to go back to claim a lost suitcase when they know it’s full of drugs.”

One of the most enjoyable things to do while visiting the store is the daily “Baggage Experience” at 2.30pm.

This involves a member of the public opening up a previously unprocessed suitcase, in front of all the other shoppers.

During my visit, I get to try it out for myself, and am immediately faced with a barrage of questions worthy of a White House press conference.

Bargain Hunt
“Did this suitcase belong to a man or a woman?” “Were they on their way to or from a trip?” “Were they travelling somewhere hot or cold?”

It is not hard to figure out that this particular suitcase belonged to a woman, probably headed for the beach with a young son.

According to Brenda, the clean, folded shirts and lack of sand in any creases mean they were almost certainly outbound.

She adds: “It’s rare to find a case so neatly packed. The majority of people aren’t folders or rollers — most are just stuffers”.

Before leaving, I have time for my own swift bargain hunt.

And I strike gold immediately with a brand-new Hugo Boss dinner jacket that fits like a glove, for just £40 — less than a tenth of what it should cost.

Eat your heart out, David Gandy.

There is, of course, a downside to all of this.

Brenda and her colleagues now have a genuine phobia of travelling with their own luggage.

“When I fly, I photograph everything inside my case, create a detailed list of contents, and add my address to every pocket, just in case,” reveals Brenda.

“Although, at least I know where it’ll end up if the airline loses it.”

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