City out to draw black tourists

Stepped-up effort includes new guide, more spending

Tapping into `a hot market'

Focus is on museums, history, cultural landmarks

September 09, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Baltimoreans might know that abolitionist Frederick Douglass, civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall and jazz great Cab Calloway all called Charm City home.

City leaders hope to promote those legends to the world with the latest and most ambitious push to market Baltimore's African-American history and legacies to visitors.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association unveiled yesterday Baltimore's African American Heritage and Attraction Guide. The glossy 25-page guide includes an overview of the city's black history and details on cultural landmarks and museums.

"I think that Baltimore has been successful in tourism because of it's harbor," said Leslie R. Doggett, president and chief executive officer of the BACVA. "But a lot of people don't know that there is so much more."

The marketing campaign is an attempt to tap into the estimated $90 billion a year minority travel industry, dominated by such cities as Atlanta and Orlando, Fla.

This is not Baltimore's first effort to highlight the region's black notables. In 2000, BACVA created the guide Discover Baltimore and distributed more than 250,000 copies over four years.

City leaders hope the new pocket-size guide will far surpass any previous attempt to lure black travelers to Baltimore. It is the centerpiece of a $255,000 campaign to market the city to African-Americans. That marks a 30 percent increase over last year's spending.

Three historical projects are nearing completion. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture is to open in March and Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in August. The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is undergoing an expansion, with a first phase expected to be ready next year.

Yesterday's announcement was made at a catered event at the city's new Visitor Center at the Inner Harbor that included a performance by the Eubie Blake Jazz Ensemble, named after the Baltimore musician.

City leaders, state and local tourism experts, and the daughter of Cab Calloway, Camay Murphy, stressed the importance of recognizing the role African-Americans have played in the region's history.

"The history of Baltimore is part of our imperfect yet always progressing American history," O'Malley said.

The new guide also made financial sense.

`A big step'

"This takes us a big step forward, to be sure we can tap into a hot market," said Dennis Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, who attended the event.

It's a formula for success that cities nationwide have followed for years.

Kathleen Bertrand, vice president of community affairs for Atlanta's Convention and Visitors Bureau, created that city's first multicultural travel guide in 1991.

The organization spends $200,000 to $300,000 a year marketing to diverse groups and has reaped the benefits of the investment, she said.

For two years, Atlanta has ranked as the top destination for black tourists nationwide, according to the annual report of the Travel Industry Association of America.

"The color of diversity is green," said Bertrand, adopting a phrase that she said a colleague, also in the multicultural hospitality business, has used to describe the phenomenon. "That is not to say that this takes advantage of people, but the bottom line is there is money to be made."

A sense of cultural identity has propelled a boom in marketing to black tourists, said Baltimore native Thomas Dorsey, CEO of Soul of America, a black travel Web site.

Web sites targeting black travelers abound, including travel agents such as Soul Planet Travel (www.soulplanettra vel.com), specializing in tours of Africa and Brazil, and Cafe de la Soul (www.cafedelasoul.com), which invites visitors to discover the Afrocentric side of Paris.

Then there's the African American Association of Innkeepers International, (www.af ricanamericaninns.com), a portal to black-owned bed and breakfasts.

Many such sites answer a growing demand from black travelers, Dorsey said.

In 1990, he picked up a travel guide on Chicago and was shocked that it made no mention of the jazz clubs on the city's historic South Side while mentioning nearly every other ethnic district.

"That was the trigger point for me," he said. "It was unbelievable."

He decided to fill the niche himself, starting Soul of America (www.soulofamerica.com).

The site, which attracts more than 180,000 visitors a month, offers information on tours nationwide and to South America, the Caribbean and Europe.

Baltimore's new black-oriented travel guide has advertised on his site.

Deep roots

"My roots run deep in Baltimore, but this is something that we think is important nationally," he said. "First of all, African-Americans have a unique cultural history that no one else can duplicate, from the impact of slavery to 100 years of American apartheid."

Dorsey said the explosion of marketing tools targeting African-Americans is a direct result of a growing black middle class and the increasing number of blacks with college degrees.

"There's also an understanding of identity that people are seeking for," he said. "For us, Soul of America is about being empowered as a traveler."

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