Visitors to the Shoals spent nearly $300 million last year in Colbert and Lauderdale counties, according to figures released by the Alabama Tourism Department.

The department also said tourism was responsible for 3,658 jobs in the two counties.

Lauderdale County Tourism President and CEO Rob Carnegie said the $242 million spent in the county represented a 1.4 percent increase over 2016 when $238 million was spent. 

The total represents money spent on lodging and meals, and at attractions and festivals. 

"It's a great number," Carnegie said. "it's not a huge gain like we want to see, but anything that's an increase, anything that's showing a positive move forward, is good."

Jobs were also up slightly, Carnegie said.

In neighboring Colbert County, visitors spent $54 million in 2017, according to Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau Executive Director Susann Hamlin.

"We had a tremendously good year last year," Hamlin said.

While the county lost one hotel property, the Four-Way Inn, it's benefitting from revenue being provided by the new Best Western Plus hotel near the Love's Travel Stop on U.S. 72.

Hamlin said about 12 percent of the visitors to the county are international visitors.

Carnegie and Hamlin said it's important to have a divers mix of attractions and sporting events to attract tourists. Both counties can point to various cultural and music-related attractions. Both counties host athletic events from golf tournaments to fishing tournaments.

Hamlin said Ivy Green, the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller, has more visitors than any attraction in the area.

"Helen Keller is a big draw because of her travels around the world," Hamlin said.

Music is another big draw, Hamlin said. The county is home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Recording Studios.

Lauderdale County is the birthplace of W.C. Handy, known as "The Father of the Blues," and "The Father of Rock 'N' Roll," Sam Phillips. 

While Lauderdale County has fewer music-related attractions, it still benefits from music tourism.

"We have one of the greatest music brands in the world," Carnegie said of the Shoals. "Our music history, our music legacy, the Muscle Shoals sound and this area are one of a kind."

He said people also come to visits places like the Rosenbaum Home, the only house in the state designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They also come to shop and dine out. 

"The Shoals occupies a unique place in the mix of attractions Alabama has that bring in visitors from around the world," State Tourism Director Lee Sentell said. "It is the only area in the state that is a destination that uses music as the focus to generate visitation."

Sentell said ever since the “Muscle Shoals” documentary was released and distributed worldwide, foreign guests have arrived in growing numbers. International guests come to America and northwest Alabama for culture, primarily music and food. The Shoals has both in abundance, he said.

Sentell also pointed out what some already know about the Shoals.

"Tourists don’t care about state lines, city limits or county limits," he said. "The Florence area is one tourist market composed of two counties. One happens to have more motel rooms than the other. That’s just how economic statistics get compiled. The more that the two counties’ marketing operations work together and share projects, the more tourists will visit the region. It is inefficient for both counties to print almost identical publications and websites. It confuses the potential guests."

He praised the work of Judy Hood and Debbie Wilson at the revitalized Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway, and Dixie Griffin, manager of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame for increasing the number of visitors at those attractions.

"Tourism continues to be an economic driver, and music has moved to the forefront of our asset mix in the Shoals," Wilson said. "The generation of increased visitation by the studios continues to have a significant impact on the bottom line for the local hospitality industry."

She said international travelers spend more, stay longer, and share their experiences on social media more often and to a wider audience than domestic travelers.

Hood said more than 30,000 visitors from 40 different countries and every state in the union have toured Muscle Shoals Sound since it opened. She said 40 percent of the studio's visitors are from another country.

"The music recorded in Muscle Shoals does not belong to us," she said. "It belongs to the world."

According to the state tourism department, the Alabama travel industry grew by $1 billion in 2017 to a record of $14.3 billion. Tourism-related jobs increased by 7,399 to 186,906 employees. Tourism attracted an additional 810,000 people to the state to top 26 million guests for the first time.

russ.corey@timesdaily.com

or 256-740-5738. Twitter

@TD_.RussCorey

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