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‘Selma’ and the Rise of Alabama Tourism

Does having a major historical film based on a city drive tourism? Selma, AL finds out.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015
Caryn Eve Murray
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Fifty years later, they still cross the bridge: But the steps of resolve and determination once taken on Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge have long since been replaced by the footfalls of tourists who, this year, will again follow the path that led to the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of those original 1965 marchers.

Countless visitors will navigate that route themselves in person. Others, sitting in movie theaters around the world, will cross that bridge along with the actors portraying those who walked into history in the Bloody Sunday scene shot on location for the film, “Selma.”

America’s civil rights struggle long ago secured a place on history tourists’ itinerary for Selma, Montgomery and other parts of Alabama – as had the Civil War’s Battle of Selma, in 1865, and other events. Regional tourism has almost always been buoyant, local officials say. The release of “Selma,” however, also coincides with the 50th anniversary of many of Rev. Martin Luther King’s history-changing words and deeds, and all that flowed from those moments into the era’s streets of discontent.

The Pettus bridge itself, where history happened, is marking its 75th year; the Civil War battle, its 150th.

Though no exact figures have been projected, this year of multiple anniversaries is expected to make even more history for a region rich in civil rights tourism.

“Hotels have been booked since last April,” said Ashley Mason, tourism director for Selma and Dallas County Tourism. “More people are coming. It is not just necessarily because of the movie. But the movie certainly helps.”

Many of the in–person bridge crossings will first involve ocean-crossings, as international tourists set their sights again on Selma and Montgomery, said Lee Sentell, director of the state’s tourism department. Although perhaps 5 percent of tourism to the region comes from overseas – largely Europe and Australia – he said these are visitors care deeply about what they’re coming to see.

Whether from home or abroad, Alabama’s tourists care deeply about what they come to see.

“We have seen in the last 12 years, tourism has grown by 70 percent, expenditures have grown,” he said. “During that time we have had recessions, several hurricanes an oil spill [in the Gulf] and the recovery.”

What’s known as the Alabama Civil Rights Trail has remain undimmed in the spotlight of tourism, he said – and not just for the 95 percent of the state’s visitors who arrive from around the U.S.

“I find that Europeans are much more interested in world history than say, Americans are,” Sentell said. “Maybe because their histories are a lot longer and they are kind of fascinated by things that America has done right and things America has done wrong.”

The movie, however, is one thing its American team members did right, he said, judging from the reception it got in London, where Sentell attended its premiere last month.

“It is a very well-told story,” said Sentell. “I was watching it for the fourth time, in London.” The world travel market has embraced the film as much as the civil rights trail, he said “and the awareness of the town of Selma is off the charts.”

One of Alabama’s strengths for tourists, according to Brian Jones, public relations director of Alabama’s tourism department, “is that these are where the events actually occurred. You are not just seeing history under Plexiglas; you are seeing the actual places. We have some great museums to go along with that but the main thing is that when you go to Selma you can walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And when you come to Montgomery we have the Rosa Parks Museum. But you can stand on the same street corner where Rosa Parks boarded the bus, and you can actually go and see Dr. King’s church and stand from there and look at our state Capitol where the marches ended.

“You get a whole feel that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

Local hotel bookings, however, were gobbled up long before “Selma” hit the screen, Mason said. With 13 hotels and one bed-and-breakfast in town, Selma officials have been directing visitors to Montgomery, about an hour away, or Prattville, about 45 minutes away. “I get emails every day about people asking to come to Selma and whether there are rooms available,” she said.

“Selma is a small town, that filled very quickly,” Jones added. British, German, Australian and French tourists – the top foreign visiting nations – will find their way, however, said Jones. As will Americans. “The movie has done a huge job in promoting the story in a very mass-media way. And that has been a great tool for reminding and touching younger generations and letting them kind of see the story for themselves.”

The film may detail, with painful local familiarity, the three months when King transformed American history by mobilizing for voting rights in Selma. King was a magnet for change and the media, as his legacy continues to be today, said Sentell. As for history – and tourism – both will continue to march in Selma for some time to come.
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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