Homespun Development: Community-based Tourism in Alabama
For years, Solimar has worked to promote sustainable growth through tourism in destinations around the globe. With one special project, we’ve had the opportunity to turn to our own back yard and look at how the tried and tested programs employed in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Eastern Europe, and the jungles of Central America can be deployed in a culturally rich and environmentally fragile location in the United States.
The Black Belt Region of Alabama stretches through 13 counties and has historically been an agriculture center for the state. It has also weathered a sordid history of political disenfranchisement and violent racism. As a result, the region faces severe challenges of poverty. The small community of Gee’s Bend, located within the Black Belt, is a community of just over 200 people located an hour away from the civil rights flashpoint of Selma.
People have been traveling to Gee’s Bend for years to appreciate their scenic location on the Alabama River, visit their famous quiltmakers, and experience a sliver of southern culture that is still unique, palpable, and authentic.
Solimar has worked with Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF) through a Ford Foundation grant to build a new community-based tourism enterprise that will maximize tourism revenues by offering – for the first time – tourism packages that encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more, and truly appreciate all that this small destination has to offer.
Nearly complete, a destination development strategy has been designed with Solimar’s guidance to create itineraries that capture the culture elements of Gee’s Bend and market them to an eager market. Highlights will include a hands-on interactive experience with Gee’s Bend world-famous quilters, a riverside lunch of local favorites catered by a local chef using local produce, and a guided walking tour of key historic sites including a spot visited by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
The community-based tourism development strategy is a culmination of nearly 6 months of interactive workshops and brainstorming sessions with regional destination managers, local tour operators, and over 100 community members.
The sales, marketing, and operations of the prescribed destination management company will all be handled by Gee’s Bend residents trained in according to Solimar’s enterprise development training process.
The tours are set to launch to a pilot audience at the end of the year.