Tourism ‘tipping point’? Savannahians lament consequences of success

Industry adds billions to economy and employs 15% of local workforce, but more residents are protesting the impact on quality of life
River Street and other Savannah attractions continue to draw tourists to the city's downtown. (Bloomberg photo by Ty Wright)

Credit: Bloomberg

Credit: Bloomberg

River Street and other Savannah attractions continue to draw tourists to the city's downtown. (Bloomberg photo by Ty Wright)

SAVANNAH – The soundtrack of Nancy Radke’s day is littered with rumbling engines, amplified voices and chittering laughter coming from the street in front of her house.

Radke lives on Washington Square in a charming corner of Savannah’s historic district. At least a dozen times a day — and into the night — the sounds of walking tours and tour trolleys overpower the sound protection provided by her doors and windows, making her feel as if she’s playing a bit part in a Savannah history sitcom.

“I’ve gotten to where I can identify the tour or trolley company by the voice of the guide,” she said. “It’s just too much.”

Radke’s frustration reflects that of a growing number of Savannah residents concerned about the impacts of tourism. At a time when Savannah and the rest of Georgia are reporting record visitor numbers, government officials in this historic town are wrestling with the challenge of balancing the tourism economy with residents’ quality of life.

Two Savannah Tours trollies carry tourist around Susie King Taylor Square. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Tourism has grown into a pillar of Savannah’s economy over the last two decades. Visitor spending exceeded $4.4 billion in 2022, according to a study by tourism and travel firm Longwoods International. Hotels and vacation rental reports indicate Savannah welcomed some 9.6 million overnight visitors last year, generating $44.5 million in bed taxes.

The city’s popularity translates to even more valuable numbers: Jobs. More than 30,000 Savannah-area residents work in the travel and tourism sector, representing nearly 15% of all non-agricultural jobs in the region.

Those stats are expected to continue to climb. A Savannah Convention Center expansion — doubling its size — is nearing completion and officials have already booked conferences of up to 4,000 attendees for the larger facility.

The trends have spurred Radke and other residents in the neighborhoods frequented by tourists to action. They’re mounting organized opposition to hospitality-related development at planning commission meetings; pushing for zoning and ordinance changes meant to limit the growth of hotels; and badgering city officials to enforce existing laws pertaining to tour trolleys and guided walking tours.

Historic district resident, David McDonald, who heads the Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association, compares tourism to fire.

“It can warm your house and cook your food,” he said. “It also can burn down your village.”

Tough to keep pace

Angst over tourism is not new to Savannah. The city’s rise from well-kept secret to well-known hotspot happened rapidly but steadily.

Local observers agree the 1994 publication of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” a best-selling book set in Savannah, launched the city’s renaissance.

Once discovered, Savannah’s charm became its own attraction. The city’s historic architecture is framed by tranquil parks and squares, dotted with oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, bringing visitors to town in the same way the smell of former Food Network TV star Paula Deen’s fried chicken does diners to her Savannah restaurant.

The Great Recession slowed the visitor interest, but only temporarily. At the turn of the last decade, growth had resumed — and at an even greater clip.

City government officials worked with tourism industry leaders to balance the shift. New policies were implemented to address short-term vacation rentals, hotel development locations, tour operator guidelines, motorcoach regulations, service-industry worker parking and other tourism-related stressors on the city’s livability.

Now, those pressures have reached what multiple downtown residents label “the tipping point.” Some have threatened to hang signs in their windows that read “Tourists go home” and to place ads in national publications discouraging visitors from coming to Savannah.

At the same time, tourists have taken notice of neighborhoods located adjacent to the National Historic Landmark District that have their own charm. These locales — the Victorian District, the Streetcar Historic District, Thomas Square and Cuyler-Brownsville — are home to restaurants, bars and other businesses popular with locals. Fearing a tourism-related crush, neighborhood association leaders are lobbying for hotel development prohibitions and stricter zoning regulations.

Savannah City Manager Jay Melder, himself a downtown resident, offers a blunt assessment of the situation. He says “demand is outpacing efforts to manage it.”

Those challenges have become a campaign issue for mayoral and city council candidates ahead of the November municipal elections. Anti-establishment challengers frequently accuse current city council members of putting business interests ahead of citizens’ quality of life. Among the candidates is Jason Combs, the neighborhood association president who has championed the expansion of hotel development restrictions.

Meanwhile, incumbents including Savannah Mayor Van Johnson stress the delicacy required to keep the economy humming while keeping the city a great place to live.

“People like going to Disney World,” Johnson said. “People don’t want to live at Disney World.”

Get ready to put on your walking shoes and explore every nook and cranny in Savannah's Historic River Street. From a myriad of quirky boutiques to one-of-a-kind gifts and décor shops, here you will find everything you never knew you needed.

Credit: Visit Savannah

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Credit: Visit Savannah

Good neighbors?

Savannah’s tourism industry pros say they too value visitor-resident balance.

Leaders in the sector have a reputation for finding compromise on quality of life issues. The Tourism Leadership Council, an organization representing hoteliers, restaurateurs and other businesses in the industry, worked with city officials and downtown residents to create a hotel overlay map. Implemented five years ago, the document restricts hotel development.

More recently, tourism leaders supported an increase to the Savannah hotel-motel tax following a collaborative effort to determine how the new revenue will be used. By law, all bed tax monies must fund tourism-related projects, but the coalition identified improvements that also boost local quality of life.

Those include an urban bicycle and walking trail network; renovation of a city-owned venue envisioned as a community gathering place that is located next to the new sports and entertainment facility, Enmarket Arena; museum development; and a boat ramp.

Addressing tourism’s pressures on the community is central to the health of both the industry and the city, said Michael Owens, CEO and president of the Tourism Leadership Council. He doesn’t consider the current tension worse than what the industry, city government and residents have experienced previously.

He stressed that the “notion of a nuisance-free life” in attractive, urban settings like Savannah is implausible. However, he reiterated that industry leaders will “always engage on issues and fix and adjust what we can to minimize impact as best as possible.”

That’s what neighbors do, Owens said.

“Remember, we’re all residents too — we don’t live in Atlanta and commute here,” he said. “We are just as likely to get stuck behind a horse carriage as those who raise concerns.”

And as Kenya Lowe Stewart points out, one Savannahian’s nuisance is another local’s livelihood. She is the housekeeping manager at the Marshall House, a historic hotel on Broughton Street. She began working in the city’s hotels as a teenager and has witnessed Savannah’s tourism boom. She understands the pressures the increased visitors put on the community, but doesn’t feel tourists have “overrun’ Savannah.

What attracts visitors is what makes Savannah special, she said.

“It’s what we are,” she said. “You can feel bombarded by tourism, but that’s a narrow view. We are a tourism city, and many, many Savannahians embrace it.”