Generating wealth and preserving cultural heritage through sustainable tourism in Alabama’s Black Belt Region
- Client: Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF)
- Partners: The Ford Foundation, YellowWood Associates, Black Belt Community Foundation
- Project Duration: May 2011 – December 2012
The Black Belt Region of Alabama—which stretches through 13 counties and has historically been an agricultural center for the state—contains some of the poorest counties in the United States. A sordid history of political disenfranchisement and violent racism combined with a fluctuating agrarian-based economy has left this region with severe challenges of poverty and a loss of natural wealth. The small community of Gee’s Bend located in the Black Belt is a microcosm for the issues plaguing this region. However, its scenic location on the Alabama River and its famous quiltmakers are untapped resources for growth through sustainable tourism – allowing people to experience a piece of southern culture that is still unique, palpable, and authentic.
Solimar worked with Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF) through a Ford Foundation grant to build a new community-based tourism enterprise that maximizes 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. The project focused on generating seven distinct forms of wealth—financial, natural, social, individual, built, intellectual, and political capital—for the community through improved destination management, a marketing campaign aimed at attracting more visitors and encouraging longer stays, and generating new fundraising opportunities.
- Building capacity: Improving destination management, sales, marketing and operations through Solimar’s enterprise development training process, which includes identifying new tourism opportunities through training workshops and brainstorming sessions with regional destination managers, local tour operators, and over 100 community members.
- Developing new tourism opportunities: Creating itineraries that capture the culture of Gee’s Bend and market it to a wider audience. Highlights include a hands-on interactive experience with Gee’s Bend’s 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.
- Developing a business strategy: Through the workshops and brainstorming sessions mentioned above, creating a community-based tourism development strategy to guide Gee’s Bend tourism stakeholders through the process of creating and implementing their new tourism enterprises.
- Incentivizing the Travel Trade: Using online and in-print marketing tools to increase not just the number of visitors to Gee’s Bend and the Black Belt Region, but the length of stays as well.
- Creation of new community-based tourism enterprise packages that highlight local culture and history
- Improved destination stewardship – including environmental and cultural conservation
- Increased capacity of community members to manage a business