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In search of the perfect tourist
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John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

The prospect of cruise ships calling on the port of Savannah has revived a discussion that has been going on, as far as I can tell, for decades.

In the mid–1990s, I wrote a regular column for a now-defunct weekly newspaper. In it, I often suggested we were nearing a point at which the National Historic Landmark District would cease to be a livable, functioning residential community.

Once we passed that point, I worried, we'd end up as a historical theme park, in which a limited number of non–tourists might happen to live.

My metric for determining how far along Savannah had moved on that continuum was a list of household items that a downtown resident might procure without having to get in a car and drive to the Southside.

I can't recall everything on the list, but it included unremarkable products such as a hammer, an oscillating fan and an ironing board.

At the time, it was easier to find a decorative pillow with "the bird girl" embroidered on it than an ordinary bed pillow any of the items on my list. If not for the Thrifty Center, it might have been impossible.

The cruise ship discussion, I think, is rooted in similar fears. When a cruise ship disgorges thousands of passengers onto to the streets of a city, bad things can happen according to those who are wary of plans to develop a cruise ship terminal on the Savannah River.

Whether they descend the gangway for the day or mere hours, they warn, throngs of passengers can overwhelm a community. There are doubts, too, about the true amount of economic activity they create while ashore. For instance, how likely are passengers to eat more than a snack if they've already paid for an all–inclusive dining package that they can enjoy back on board?

By contrast, imagine ideal tourists. They would not place excessive demand on infrastructure, they would spend a lot of money and they would linger more than a few hours.

Their presence wouldn't alter the livability or character of our city and disrupt they delicate balance that makes Savannah a wonderful place to visit and a wonderful place to live. They would provide all of the upside with none of the risk.

Does such a species of visitor actually exist? Yes, indeed. They are called bicycle tourists.

They arrive in town, park their cars in hotel garages, remove their bicycles from the roof or trunk rack and don't get back behind the wheel until they're ready to leave town. As a result they don't contribute to traffic congestion and don't compete with locals for street parking.

A subspecies of bicycle tourist will even skip the parking in the hotel garage step. They'll roll into town on their bikes. These are perhaps the most desirable kind of bicycle tourists, at least from an economic standpoint.

Although many touring cyclists make an art out of efficiently packing supplies and equipment in their panniers, they must reprovision locally. Contrast this with visitors who arrive in SUVs loaded with everything they need for their stay, including coolers packed with food that they will wheel up to their hotel rooms.

As a class of tourists, it's hard to imagine any more desirable than cyclists. In its analysis of an oft–cited study on North Carolina's successful efforts to attract cycle tourists to the Outer Banks, the League of American Bicyclists reports, "... bicycle tourists there tend to be affluent (half earn more than $100,000 a year and 87 percent earn more than $50,000) and educated (40 percent have a masters or doctoral degree)."

The state made investments in bicycle infrastructure and they have paid off with 53 percent of tourists reporting that bikeablility made them more likely to return for repeat visits and 43 percent indicating that cycling was a primary factor their selection the Outer Banks as a destination. Similarly, states from Virginia to Maine to Wisconsin have documented significant economic returns on their investments in bicycle infrastructure.

While bicycle lanes, routes, trails, parking and other facilities clearly attract tourists to communities, they are just as useful to residents. On the other hand, I can't imagine a cruise terminal being of any use to people who live in Savannah.

Houston spent somewhere around $100 million on a cruise terminal that sat empty for years before the city could entice cruise lines to call. Think about the useful bicycle projects we could fund with that amount of money and how many desirable visitors we could attract to Savannah.