Tourism brought in $3.8 billion, that’s billion, with a “b” to the economy of Alabama's Black Belt last year. That is an increase of $1.9 billion between 2020 and 2023, the last full year of figures available. Even bigger is the turnover of tourist dollars created some 45,500 jobs across the region.

Given the fact that 2020 was the height of the pandemic, which reduced travel significantly, the increase is remarkable.

The report shows West Alabama accounts for 31% of the tourist spending and 28% of all the jobs created. While much of that income is associated with University of Alabama sports, there is far more to the tourist dollars than that.

As businesses, hotels, bars and restaurants make money so do government bank accounts through taxes. $219 million worth of state and local taxes were generated by tourists and one of the biggest beneficiaries is the State Education Trust Fund which raked in $70 million for schools.

West Alabama alone realized annual tourism incomes rising from $562,414,519 in 2020 to $1.15 billion last year. Tuscaloosa County brought in the lion’s share, or should I say elephant’s share, of the proceeds at $999,591,345.

The Black Belt is a swath of land stretching from Tuscaloosa, Pickens, Greene, Hale, Sumter, Marengo, Perry and Choctaw counties in West Alabama to Lee, Russell and Barbour counties in the east. The name derives from the richness of the soil, but a majority of the population is African American.

In the 1800s the Black Belt was an economic powerhouse off the sweat and toil of slaves working on some of the state’s grandest plantations. Once the south lost the civil war, the area plunged into poverty during reconstruction and the Great Depression. When Jim Crow laws were finally struck down the region saw an exodus of whites. The decline continued as young blacks began moving out after high school, looking for better opportunities.

With the exception of Tuscaloosa and Montgomery counties, many of the 23 county Black Belt region have few industries and the population base is shrinking in the more rural counties. So, tourist spending is a major financial shot in the arm.

The region gets income from college football. But some of the most important sites in the struggle for civil and voting rights lay along the Civil Rights Trail binging tourists to Tuscaloosa, Perry, Dallas, Lowndes and Montgomery counties. The trail draws more and more people each year.

Then there is the annual "Jubilee" in Selma that draws thousands to the recreation of the "Bloody Sunday" voting rights march across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Just down the road in Wilcox County the magnificent world-famous Gee’s Bend Quilters attract thousands each year to the community on the Alabama River.

The study also reveals it is the “Great Outdoors” through hunting and fishing that creates a massive segment of tourist dollars. $1.7 billion came through taxidermy services, arms, boat rentals, fuel, ammo and apparel, fishing tackle, lodging, meals, souvenirs, gear and accessories.

White-tailed deer, duck, wild hogs. Quail, squirrel, and turkey attract hunters from all over. Fishing in the “Bass Capital of the World” Lake Eufaula, Miller’s Ferry Reservoir on the Alabama River in Wilcox County, and West Alabama’s Black Warrior River draw thousands of visitors annually. That even includes large numbers of bird watchers.

The study conducted for Alabama Black Belt Adventures, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities within the region shows, “the natural environment of the Black Belt is a major draw to those fond of the great outdoors. “

Hunting and fishing clubs and camps dot across the region and there is even a bronze statue to an English Pointer in Union Springs, “The Field Trial Capitol of the World”. Since 1921 the town has welcomed hundreds of tourists every February at the National Amateur Free-for-All Championship of field trials.

So, the next time you see and out-of-state or even county tag, extend a hand of welcome, they are helping our economy.

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