It takes a little culture to jump-start tourism

As international tourist destinations go, Clarksdale is a little, well, we’ll let the mayor himself describe it:

“We pride ourselves on being gritty,” Bill Luckett said to a group of visiting food writers in September.

“This is no Ritz-Carlton, OK? You want that, go to Atlanta.”

To quote Elvis himself, though: That’s all right, Mama. That’s all right with him. People from all over the world travel to Clarksdale, about 90 minutes south of Memphis, Tenn., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

So what has Clarksdale got that a lot of small towns wish they had? Culture – and that’s something that some towns in North Carolina are starting to harness as well.

Overseas visitors

Clarksdale is at the heart of what some call the American Music Triangle, between Nashville, Tenn., Memphis and New Orleans. Name a blues legend and there’s a Clarksdale connection: Son House, Sam Cooke and John Lee Hooker were born there. Bessie Smith died there. And Robert Johnson made his deal with the Devil at the crossroads on the outskirts of town.

When you’re on a blues crawl through clubs like Red’s or the Ground Zero, co-owned by Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman, the people next to you may be Australian, British or French. Or it might be a celebrity: Guys like Robert Plant regularly sneak into town.

But like a lot of old towns in rural settings, Clarksdale can look a little rundown in the hard light of day. For hotel arrangements, you might end up at the Riverside, where the bathrooms are down the hall, or the Lofts at the 5  & 10, hip rooms upstairs from what used to be a novelty store.

For restaurants, you’ll find high-end tacos at the Oxbow, but dining is mostly limited to local tamales and barbecue.

Culinary attractions

Still, Clarksdale is writing the playbook for cultural tourism, says Suzanne Brown, the media relations specialist with Visit N.C., part of the N.C. Division of Tourism.

“Towns that know who they are and build on that, they know what’s important,” she says. “I love driving through these towns that once were abandoned and now there are signs of life.”

Culinary tourism has become a driver for a lot of small towns in North Carolina, she says – and not just barbecue. Stop in Saxapahaw, near Chapel Hill, which is now an artists’ community with two restaurants. Or in Spruce Pine in the mountains – the Knife & Fork Restaurant was named one of the best 100 restaurants in the South by Southern Living.

The best example? Kinston, about 90 minutes from Raleigh, where much of the downtown was empty after tobacco farming bottomed out. Now Vivian Howard’s restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, and a related PBS show, “A Chef’s Life,” have started to draw visitors.

Kinston now has Mother Earth Brewing, a second Howard restaurant (and sort of a third – her sister owns the Queen Street Deli) and an Asian fusion restaurant, Ginger 18. A third B&B is opening soon to handle the visitors.

While dining used to be the fifth most-frequent subject searched on Kinston’s website, now it’s No. 1. And out-of-state contacts, people from out of the state who request information, have tripled.

Food may not be the only draw, either. The town has an active arts council that supports Kinston as the start of the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina. Covering eight counties, it is a self-guided music experience of gospel, blues and R&B, based on a book of the same name by Sarah Bryan, Beverly Patterson and Michelle Lanier. (The online guide is being built by the N.C. Arts Council.)

‘Curiosity factor’

Another N.C. town that hopes to draw its own visitors for music is Shelby, with the Earl Scruggs Center.

“Shelby is a nice town, and the Scruggs center gives you a real reason to go there,” says Brown. “With restaurants, there are similar things (to draw visitors). It puts you on the map and gets people thinking about you.”

Is a tourist economy stable, though? Brown points out that even in the economic downturn, people still took trips. They just took shorter, closer trips. So it can be “Goodbye, Paris – hello, Saxapahaw.”

“Travel is one of those things people tend to do, no matter what,” says Brown.

When people travel in America, they sometimes want the connection and closeness of small-town culture, if that culture is well-organized enough to make it easy to experience in a couple of days. That’s what Clarksdale, with two museums and a calendar of music festivals, has really figured out.

“We have the curiosity factor,” says Malcolm White, director of the Mississippi Arts Commission and chair of the Mississippi Blues Commission.

“We have a great story to tell.”