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overbooked or overlooked?

Venice is a city whose greatest days as a center of banking and commerce are behind her. Always intimately connected to the sea, her cuisine features fresh seafood of every variety and description, taken from the surrounding waters. Known throughout the world as a great seaport, Venice has always been a place where people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds could find tolerance. And yet the city’s natives share a deep and sometimes dark disdain for strangers. Although visitors have always been treated with hospitality, the city has lately become a tourist driven economy, and a refuge for wealthy expatriates that live in Venice for only a few months each year. As a consequence, it has become too expensive for most Venetians to be able to live and work in the neighborhoods in the center of their city.

Sound familiar?

All of these things could also be said of Savannah. Venice entertains over 20 million tourists per year, and Savannah is fast approaching 75% of that number. Both are also world heritage sites, famed for their preserved history. That means that there remains a finite amount of historical fabric to showcase, as history is created slowly. But Venice has at least 30 world class art museums, dozens of chef driven restaurants, a world renowned music venue, and hundreds of palazzi with unique architecture and stories of great families full of intrigue and mayhem. And some of the best shopping in the world’s history. Simply stated, Venice attracts an endless stream of people because she is one of the most interesting places on Earth.

OK, so this is my thesis: Savannah doesn’t have too many tourists, we have too little for them to do. Although we attract almost as many tourists, we have only a few art museums, a couple of chef driven restaurants, no music venue that artists want to play, and only a few house museums. Our main shopping street has some cool shops, but pales in comparison to most American cities. Mostly people come here to drink and ride around listening to stories loosely based upon history, or just completely made up about ghosts. For this reason, our tourists frequently get bored, leave town with a hangover and only memories of our beautiful squares, then never return. Children wish they were anywhere else.

Simple fact: almost half of our current sales tax comes from visitors, so we can’t live the life we live without them.

We need to get serious, like Venice, about making sure that every visitor leaves wanting to come back again. We need educational and entertaining things for children and adults to do. We must do whatever we can to attract top chefs, and create a new generation of professional people to support them. We should build the best performance venue in Georgia with the new Cultural Arts Center, then add or upgrade dozens more large and small music places, to make top musicians our most prestigious guests. Simple things, like good street lighting and way-finding signage would make a big difference. Most of all, we need a world class shopping street, and side streets full of local art, artists and their creations for sale.

Unlike Venice, we decided not to invite cruise ships. Thank you! Let’s celebrate with people that really, really want to be here. And give them something to do other than binge drink.

In the end, the danger we face is not becoming, like Venice, a city that thrives on cultural tourism. Our fear should be in becoming another center of “vice tourism”, like some other famous American destinations.

The choice is ours: we can invest in art, genuine cuisine, music and high quality retail, or we can sit on our historic assets and let the visitors find their own vices.

From my perspective here in Venice tonight, the choice seems easy.


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