DESPITE having one too many letters, "hotel" seems to have become a four-letter word in Savannah.
Nonstop construction of hotels to accommodate tourists who want to visit the landmark district could indeed irreparably damage the character that draws them here in the first place, so the concern is valid.
Atlanta — a city that’s demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm for shamelessly demolishing its own history — might at first glance appear to be an unlikely source for solutions, but Nedra Deadwyler is advancing a unique approach to tourism in that city.
In 2014 she founded Civil Bikes (civilbikes.com), a walking and bicycle tour company that focuses on “unseen and unheard stories about Atlanta in a unique and accessible way” and “creatively builds a just community and inspires action.”
As I’ve written in the past, bicycle tourists are a particularly desirable type of visitor. In addition to locally-owned Savannah Bike Tours, several national bike tour companies are operating in our city.
Still, we should be doing more to promote Savannah as a bicycling destination. According to the Adventure Cycling Association, bicycle tourism contributes $83 billion annually to U.S. economy.
Cycling visitors also don’t carry the same kinds of “baggage” that other tourists may bring with them. For example, they don’t compete with locals for car parking spaces, don’t put wear and tear on our historic street surfaces, and are unlikely to get in fistfights in City Market when the bars close — they need their rest so they can get up early to ride.
Their importance to our city’s culture and history is even more significant. Visitors who explore destinations by bike are seeking deeper connections with people and places, and value authenticity and history.
That’s been Deadwyler’s experience, as she describes her clients as people who want “to get beyond the surface and want to understand where they are for its own merits and in relation to where they come from.”
She said they often ask difficult questions about race and class, conversations which she encourages. Her goal is to “provide space to build awareness, knowledge, and understanding with sensitivity and skill,” while exploring a range of topics “from neighborhood history, major movements like Civil Rights, and communities of people who continue to impact Atlanta.”
“Where people have questions like these, they don’t want to see the Georgia Aquarium,” she said. “They want to see the local economy, see where residents live, and what does it mean to be part of a place and that location’s history.”
Deadwyler isn’t just showing visitors the sites, she’s working to support and protect the neighborhoods where they are located. For each $35 walking tour, 50 percent is spent in communities that she tours. For each $65 bike tour, 25 percent is spent along the way.
“On our tours, we stop at local businesses and cultural spaces. It gives that special moment, supports the local economy, and staves off gentrification,” she said.
“As cities change and identities shift in ways that tend to leave out what was there previously, stopping at long-time businesses becomes increasingly more important.”
Deadwyler is quick to acknowledge the economic impact of tourism in our state, noting that it accounted for “7.5 percent of GDP growth in 2018.”
She said, “Those dollars go a long way to support local businesses. In a time where it seems that more locales are the same as the next, people search for authentic expressions of a place.”
Preserving authenticity is especially important when it comes to sharing the history of people and places that have not received the attention they deserve.
“It has become very clear that the physical preservation of Black spaces in the built environment is an important part to preserving stories,” she said.
“Without the physical representation, the stories ring shallow. And if these locations are utilized by the community of origin, they could serve as an on-going piece of the economic puzzle for Black communities. These are resources that Black people need to retain and incorporate into future plans.”
This is why Deadwyler is going beyond introducing visitors to historic structures and spaces, to actively working to protect them.
“Civil Bikes is positioning itself to develop partnerships to preserve physical structures, looking for ways to support telling stories connected to the built environment, and telling more stories in a variety of ways including a biking or walking tour and other events,” she said.
“In the coming year, Civil Bikes will provide more opportunity for people to engage with history connected to more spaces. And at some point, we plan to have projects where we are doing the work to preserve physical structures.”