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Strive for sustainability, not ‘balance’
Coastal Georgia Tourism Conference debuts with spirited discussion
The Riverwalk Trail in Woodbine, Georgia. Camden County has emerged as a leader in trail development on the Georgia Coast. - photo by Photo courtesy City of Woodbine

KILLING the goose that laid the golden egg. Loving a place to death. Too much of a good thing.

All of these phrases were used April 12 at a conference in Savannah to describe a scenario of increasing concern locally and internationally.

Too many tourists descending on a destination can degrade and even destroy the cultural, environmental, and historic resources that made it a place people wanted to visit in the first place.

The first Coastal Georgia Tourism Conference, organized by the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Sea Grant, was held at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens (Or in local parlance, the Bamboo Farm).

The goal of the conference was to “build a network of industry partners focused on promoting coastal tourism while preserving the natural beauty and environmental health of the Georgia Coast.”

In discussions about managing tourism while protecting places and preserving quality of life for residents, “balance” is often used to identify both the process and the end goal. Jonathan Tourtellot, the conference keynote speaker, urged attendees to stop using that word.

Instead, he said, communities should talk about and strive for a state of mutual sustainability and support.

Tourtellot is CEO of the Destination Stewardship Center, which focuses on “the intersection of tourism and the stewardship of places.” He also founded National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations.

“When it’s all about transactions,” he warned, “the identity of a place can slip away.” He recommended that communities, “manage tourism so that it pays to protect the place, not destroy it.”

At the same time, Tourtellot said, “All spectrums of society must have the opportunity to enjoy a place.”

To his way of thinking, “managing tourism and managing the place are the same job.”

In her presentation, Cheryl Hargrove identified Interstate 95 as both an asset and a hinderance to tourism on the coast. Hargrove is director of industry and partner relations for the Tourism Division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development and author of the book, “Cultural Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability.”

While the condition of the highway compares favorably to other coastal states, it also encourages travelers to speed through the state. Convincing people to get off the interstate and explore coastal Georgia is challenge she said.

Tonya Harvey, executive director of the Kingsland Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t just want to lure people off the interstate, she wants to make her community welcoming to people who are not driving there.

Describing many parts of her community as being “built around cars,” she said they are now taking a different approach during the Coastal Tourism Planning and Policy session.

“Not everyone is traveling by car,” she said, “So how do we get people to places, safely?” The answer is trails and Camden County has made them a priority.

Brent Buice, South Carolina and Georgia Coordinator of the East Coast Greenway Alliance and chair of the nonprofit formed to advance the Tide to Town urban trail system in Savannah, was a speaker on the conference’s Coastal Tourism Development panel.

Buice said trails can reduce congestion in areas that are heavily visited, including Savannah.

“We need to be thoughtfully managing the impact of the tourists we already have, and one of the biggest consequences of tourism is traffic,” he said.

“People are already coming here because of the dense, walkable nature of the historic district, so we should embrace that and do everything we can through smart infrastructure investments to make it as easy and convenient and safe as possible for visitors — and locals — to get around without being dependent on private automobiles,” said Buice.

Along with the pragmatic function of trails, Buice said they allow people to engage more fully with places.

“Paved trails like Tide to Town and the East Coast Greenway enable and promote exploration by foot and by bike. There are no parking lots needed and people get to notice and appreciate those architectural details and scenic natural spaces that are so easy to miss from inside a fast-moving motor vehicle. Trails provide a practical traffic management solution while also fulfilling tourists’ desire for authentic, memorable experiences,” he said.

What’s more, Buice said, there’s a connection between trails and adoption of the stewardship ethos Tourtellot espouses.

“Conservationists have long known that people need to see, hear, and directly experience a place to want to protect it, and the same principle is true for man-made, historical places like Savannah,” he said. “When tourists have the opportunity to stroll or bike along shady canal banks and through neighborhoods, they are far more likely to take personal pride in that place. Trails turn tourists into stewards and ambassadors for a place.”