There it is again. The apology. The speaker is a local politician and the topic is progress and his introduction to his topic includes what I – a transplant from the west coast - now think of the apparently obligatory apology for what is usually referred to as “that dark period of Alabama history”. He is referring to the 60’s and the era of the civil rights struggle in Alabama. I always want to stand up, stop the speaker and point out to the speaker that whatever moral authority the United States holds on the world stage was provided by the work done by “that dark period” and that any good that has been done by the United State as a result of that moral authority is a result of “that dark period”. But I restrain myself. The speaker is quite young – too young to have actually been personally touched by the “dark period”.
Dilcy Hilley was personally touched. Now vice-president of marketing and communications at Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, she oversees the marketing and communications for Birmingham tourism trade. She has for 35 years. Dilcy grew up in Selma and she is talking to me now about some of the highlights of the 50 year commemoration of the civil rights struggle. “It’s brought visitors from all over the world that might not normally visit Birmingham, Alabama. It is an incredible learning experience.” Another highlight was the opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 1993. “For so long everyone else had told the Birmingham story. But with the opening of the museum, it was a turnabout and we got to tell our own story. Really magnificent.”
Also magnificent is the big boost in tourism dollars to Birmingham as a result of the city’s civil rights history. Total revenues from tourism for the state in 2012 were $1.54B. Yes that is a B. “People think of tourism as a kind of fluff industry” Dilcy says, but the spending dollar distribution for Birmingham says otherwise. Dining expenditures are 28% or approximately $425M. Shopping is a close second at 28%, lodging at 17%, recreation at 14% and transportation and other expenditures at 13%. In addition, the tourism bureau employs about 40 people.
The bureau is constantly looking to increase tourism, competing with neighboring Florida beaches, Georgia history, Tennessee Civil War history and Louisiana cuisine and exotica. The bureau spends about $1M per year in advertising towards increasing tourism emphasizing affordable meeting spaces and ease of transportation. Sports marking, convention sales and group tour business contribute to Birmingham earning a place as a visitor destination. The Mid-Year Amateur Championship Golfers meet-up, scheduled for October 5th this year, draws players from all over the country.
The 50th year commemoration of Birmingham's civil rights history commenced January, 2013 and proceeds through December, 2013. Many will remember the bombings and the dogs and the hoses and the children’s crusade. Dilcy remembers as well, but is also aware of the progress made in Birmingham. “There is always something on the horizon.” she says, “that makes me want to stay and see what happens next”.