Drawing African-American tourists

City, state to spread word on historic, cultural sites

February 19, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's list of tourist attractions may not be as high-powered as San Francisco's, Boston's or New York's. But the city, and the state of Maryland, have a surprising array of strengths in the realm of African-American tourism - a rapidly growing sector of the travel industry across the country.

Maryland is the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad; Frederick Douglass, the internationally known abolitionist, orator and political leader; Benjamin Banneker, an early African-American scientist; and Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, a civil rights leader and the first black Supreme Court justice.

"If the African-American community is going to spend money on vacations and trips, we want them to spend it here in Baltimore and in Maryland," Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for the division of tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said yesterday.

African-American tourists represented nearly 10 percent of all visitors to Maryland, according to the most recent numbers, Castleman told about 120 people who attended the African American Tourism Council of Maryland's annual Black History Month program at the Hyatt Regency Hotel yesterday.

Tourism is an $8.8 billion industry in Maryland, with visitors staying longer - an average of 2.9 days in 2002, up from 2.4 days in 2001.

And Baltimore, home to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, soon will add another strong African-American tourist attraction when the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture opens this fall.

At the same time, the state is spending about $1 million to develop a driving trail that will take visitors on the path of the Underground Railroad through Maryland, with the help of interpretive signs, Internet maps and information and brochures. The goal is to complete the project in about 18 months, Castleman said.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele told the audience that one obstacle is the poor visibility of the state's more than two dozen museums related to African-American history and culture - some of which are small and in out-of-the-way locations.

"No one knows where you are," Steele said. "No one knows you exist. I'm not saying you can't compete, but you're also in a unique position to come together collectively."

Leslie R. Doggett, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said her office plans a public relations campaign targeting African-American travelers.

African-American travel volume increased 4 percent nationally between 2000 and 2002, according to the most current statistics available from the Travel Industry Association of America. In contrast, overall U.S. travel increased by 2 percent during the same period.

Baltimore is well-positioned for such a campaign because of its vibrant African-American culture, rich history and outstanding attractions, Doggett said.

"We have a product that people want," she said. "We've got to package it and market it. We need to develop what I like to call Team Baltimore, and the African-American community will be integral to this team."

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