Tourism in the Mountain South: A Double-Edged Sword
By C. Brenden Martin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007; 246pp.; illustrations, notes, index: cloth, $32.00.
C. Brenden Martin, Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University, enters the current debate among cultural resource managers and scholars about the advantages and difficulties of tourism by addressing the subject in his book on the Mountain South with Tourism in the Mountain South: A Double-Edged Sword. This region includes Southern Appalachia, the Cumberland Plateau, and the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains. From his historical perspective he strongly recommends that future planning seek a diversified economy not dependent on tourism alone. Although a buoy for sluggish economies, tourism is not without serious limitations, hence the book's subtitle.
Martin addresses the subject in three sections, each dedicated to a period. In each, he investigates how tourism influenced not only the economy but the local culture and the natural environment. Tourism began in the Mountain South during the early 19th century when transportation by horse and wagon set a pattern of development across the region that lasted until the end of the Civil War. The sick and ailing went to simply provisioned spas and taverns for "taking the cure." Gradually, the South's upper classes added the social rituals they practiced in their Tidewater and Low Country homes to the health-giving spas as they turned them into stylish pleasure-vacation sites. Southern women found antidotes for their home-bound isolation in these settings, and the young welcomed opportunities for courtship. These settings exacerbated the distinctions between the wealthy outsiders and the local denizens of generally modest means.
Railroads marked the next period of tourism in the Mountain South, transporting most of the visitors during the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. Gone were the southern elites, replaced by wealthy northern industrialists and New South businessmen whose wealth gave them advantages over the local communities in financing the new resorts. This imbalance of power led to more prestigious and elegantly appointed resorts. The curative powers of spas eventually gave way to their suitableness as settings for rest and relaxation from the exertions of city life. Failure to gain nearby railroad access doomed some spas and locally-owned boarding houses.
The new tourism perpetuated the demand for cheap labor on which the southern economy had long been based. Local boosters, however, looked to the profits of widespread financial opportunity, minimal environmental impacts, and the cultural distinctiveness that tourism promised.
Interactions between tourists and local communities within the Mountain South had lasting consequences on the popular perception of the region and its inhabitants. Local inhabitants came across as unsophisticated, if not primitive, to the visitors. Conversely, this same perception led to efforts to preserve the arts and crafts associated with those simple folk or "hillbillies." Differences between the tourists and the local communities helped build the foundation for a marketing strategy after the railroads. Just as tourism enabled encounters between tourists and local people, with considerable misunderstanding as a result, so encounters with the attractive natural features ended up jeopardizing nature's survival.
The number of tourists dramatically increased in the 20th century, when automobiles surpassed railroads as the primary means of access to the region. The new mode of transport brought a tourist less wedded to luxury and more concerned with convenience. Small Mom-and-Pop business owners and managers abounded initially because the costs of entry into those businesses were minimal, and promoters of the Mountain South ballyhooed tourism as the way to the region's prosperity. State and Federal Governments built an extensive highway system to make the tourist influx possible but, by the end of the 20th century, the tourist service industry had landed in the laps of big companies based outside the region. New forms of tourism developed—recreational, escapist, such as Helen, Georgia's Bavarian village, a town divorced from local circumstances, and entertainment. True of many service industries, tourism depended on seasonal, low-paying local jobs lacking benefits and increased local government support of the physical infrastructure. Tourism also fed cultural and historic preservation efforts; however, the efforts were geared toward economic gain and commercial popularity.
Scholars of tourism are an impassioned group, weighing the pros and cons of tourism's powerfully transformative force on the host setting. Martin takes his place among these writers, whose moral soundings can be traced back over 40 years in a steady stream of powerfully-reasoned and well-researched books. The earlier scholars in this lineage were more nuanced and usually addressed how the tourists themselves were affected. Hal K. Rothman concluded prophetically in Devil's Bargain: "We are all industrial tourists… . Psychically, socially, culturally, economically, environmentally, we inexorably change all we touch."(1)
Although Martin is sensitive to the truth that tourism jeopardizes the very thing that lures tourists, he concludes that tourism can be acceptable as long as the right balance is achieved in dollars and cents. Why is tourism not taken for a cultural activity as opposed to a strictly economic one? After all, the arithmetic of the balance sheet is a cultural derivative, the underlying assumptions of which are debatable.
This criticism itself is outweighed by what Martin has accomplished. He has provided a useful history for public and scholarly activity, outlining a subject deserving more attention. Those managing the landscapes of the Mountain South or its economic future will appreciate Martin's conclusions, which are written in very accessible prose from essential primary documents and secondary sources about the Mountain South, a region long overlooked.
Keith A. Sculle
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
1. Hal K. Rothman, Devil's Bargain: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), p. 377.