In my City Talk column today, How many tourists does Savannah want?, I mention three unresolved issues that all raise questions about tourism in Savannah:
How many tourists do we want? What kind of tourists do we want?
And what are we willing to do and to spend to get them here?
These seem to me to be the crucial questions surrounding a handful of current issues facing the region, including ideas to limit walking tours, to use public bonds to support the construction of a new convention-oriented hotel on Hutchinson Island and to bring cruise ships to Savannah.
I suspect (at least I hope) that the walking tour issue will fade into the background. If there are latenight tours that are making too much noise — and I’m pretty sure there are — then existing noise ordinances should address those issues. I fear, though, that the current complaints about walking tours might be another one of those issues that runs rampant in the downtown Savannah echo chamber, where residents latch onto minor issues like they were major ones and don’t stop until something, anything, is done. Jane Jacobs used the term “squelchers” (defined in various places on the web as “those political, business, and civic leaders that divert human creative energy by posing roadblocks and saying ‘no’ to new ideas”) and I think that might be relevant here too. Over the last decade or so, there have been individual forces for ‘no’ in the downtown area whose isolated voices have been given far too much power.
Rather than talking about limiting walking tours, we should be talking about how to get as many tourists out of their cars as possible. Oglethorpe’s grid has responded well to the advent of the automobile, but it’s really a city designed for foot travel and commerce.
Comically, one commenter at the end of my SavannahNow column wants more “substance.” Well, it’s a 450-word column (my Tuesday limit) that is consciously trying to address the big questions and not get caught up in details. If we want tourism to grow, we can do things to make it grow — the cruise terminal, the convention hotel, etc. Or we can settle in and say that enough of our downtown economy — land for hotels, retail emphasis, etc. — has already been devoted to tourism. But that means finding new ways for downtown to thrive, probably through increased residential density and higher commercial property occupancy rates, especially for the office sector. And that means better city decisions in terms of parking, taxation, promotion, and other areas.