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City needs a real Tourism Office
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Robert Edgerly stated in last week’s issue, “there should be input from everyone involved in the economic and cultural well–being of this wonderful area.” And so, I am offering my input on Savannah’s tourism industry.

In the summer of 2008, the Great Recession devoured the two tour companies I worked for, leaving me jobless. I worked a different job for a while, but that business also failed.

I started my own walking tour company in 2010 for love of the business and from a lack of other options. I’ve been successful enough that for the first time I can pay all my bills without anyone’s help and can even offer some small assistance to my loved ones.

Whenever the City takes an ill–considered, reactionary swipe at small business, this is what they endanger. And tourism, especially walking tours, is a very large small business in this town.

Consider everything tourism has done for Savannah: It’s a multi–billion dollar industry that benefits thousands with employment, profits, and taxes. The improved safety and quality of life downtown owes a little something to the growth of tourism as well.

Many business owners and residents are positive that having groups of people moving around throughout the day and during the night has contributed to the decline of street crime over the years. Consideration for tourists has also compelled the City to prioritize Savannah’s unique beauty and guard it from decay.

Now consider the fallout if the industry contracts. As you observed, the City of Savannah has an egregious history where small business is concerned. It is easier to inflict new burdens on defenseless targets than to develop a real solution.

In my opinion, reform within the bureaucracy will be far more effective than penalizing tour companies. Most tour owners are sensitive to the needs of the Historic District’s inhabitants. They have been abiding by the rules for years and are happy to police their fellow tour guides.

But tourism has grown explosively and an increasing number of people have dabbled in the business to make fast cash. These people have only a shallow affection for Savannah, slight consideration for its residents, and little regard for poorly enforced laws.

From the perspective of more established tour operators, it feels as if City Hall has only just realized Savannah has a tourism industry and that they need to manage it. It is the City’s job to enforce its own rules and the City has no effective means of doing so.

There is no Tourism Office. No one keeps track of paperwork and no one has a plan for the future. There is no central authority that issues permits, assures quality control, or enforces ordinances.

The entire process is split up between the Municipal Building, the Motor Coach Office, and Parking Services. And they don’t talk to each other. Basically, there is no liaison between tour operators and City government.

Tour guides have to fight in order to have any input on proposed new ordinances that affect them, the current Tour Ordinance dates from 1978 and has no connection with today’s reality, there is no authority to whom tour owners can address concerns about other companies, and they have no official means of responding to residents’ complaints.

We do not need more regulation, only the correct regulation. If you want things done right, insist that the City centralize everything and create a Tourism Office to manage the industry.

Bonnie Rae Terrell

Owner, Bonnie Blue Tours