Many destinations in the South lean heavily on plantations to attract events and tour groups, but the tide is slowly turning. Many people would now rather pursue truth and reconciliation instead of romanticizing the places where slavery took place.
Former slave plantations have long been crucial to the tourism infrastructure of the American South. They attract lots of events and tour groups, in part because many stakeholders market them as romantic places with nice architecture and photogenic landscaping.
But now that Pinterest, The Knot, Zola, and similar sites have cut back on promoting plantations as wedding venues, the broader world of events and tourism faces renewed pressure to acknowledge the violent history of these properties instead of avoiding a painful subject in an effort to keep visitation numbers up.
“The reality is that many historic venues in the South have ties to enslavement,” said Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston in South Carolina, in a statement. “Another reality is that special events, including weddings held at plantations, support hundreds of jobs and provide the funding necessary for these sites to continue their critical mission of telling these complex stories.”
Visitor bureaus across the South struggle to balance the industry’s needs with the pursuit of truth and reconciliation. “No one denies the violent conditions of slavery,” said Hill. “We encourage anyone who wishes to see how this important yet painful subject is being addressed to visit Charleston and experience the interpretation of African-American history at our historic sites.”
The Spoleto Festival in Charleston has for many years held its final concert at the Middleton Place plantation. Founded in 1977, the internationally acclaimed performing arts festival attracts upward of 80,000 attendees every summer. The festival has not responded to an interview request.
“It’s our job to continue to inspire travel to those attractions for whatever the visitor needs, whether it’s a reflection, whether it’s for genealogical research,” said Buddy Boe, executive director of the River Parishes Tourist Commission, which promotes the brand New Orleans Plantation Country. Boe said the region sees thousands of visitors every week coming out of New Orleans, many being day-trippers. “A lot of these locations have great records, and sometimes the only records for some families.”
“We’re going to continue to promote the destination and hope that we grow the pie to absorb any reduction [in visitation] based on these decisions [by Pinterest, etc.].”
The commission is currently undergoing a strategic plan and brand analysis, which could result in renaming the New Orleans Plantation Country brand in 2020. “Twenty years is a long time for any brand to survive, especially one that does contain a word that at times definitely triggers negative emotions.”
“This brand, and the destination itself, is very sensitive,” said Boe.
The Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans is a rare one dedicated solely to honoring the stories of the enslaved. The River Parishes Tourist Commission promotes the Whitney among the region’s attractions. Many other plantations are doing very limited truth-telling, according to Joy Banner, the Whitney’s director of communications and marketing.
“It’s very strategic. They go as far as they feel they need to go,” she said. “There is some need for them to acknowledge that plantations are not just institutions that celebrate the grandeur of sugar barons, but they are forced labor camps.”
Including disenfranchised black people in the tourism industry would constitute a big change, Banner said, but this type of long-term inclusion effort is a tall order. Jody Bear, a travel advisor and independent contractor with Tzell Travel Group, has done cultural tours in the south that include plantations but expressed no preference for working with black tour guides or black-owned businesses as part of the experience. Skift found that this approach is not rare in a recent investigation of exploitation in cultural tours.
The marketing of New Orleans Plantation Country is problematic as well, according to Banner. The brand actively promotes weddings, events, and tours that take place on plantations.
“I understand that you need to have a sustainable enterprise,” Banner said. “But they’re so fearful, they’re overlooking the tremendous opportunities they have in having a space where African Americans can go back and experience where their ancestors once were.” The Whitney has seen over 400,000 visitors since opening five years ago, and visitation has increased every year, Banner said. It only hosts events that match its mission, for example a blessing of the grounds, a drum circle, or an event for a justice-oriented nonprofit.
Attractions that confront slavery and segregation are popping up across the South, slowly but surely. The Equal Justice Initiative opened its lynching memorial and museum to nationwide acclaim in 2018 and sees rising visitation. Over the last five years, numerous civil rights museums have undergone significant renovations, and within the last two years, some destinations removed their confederate symbols in an effort to welcome visitors and residents alike.
Photo credit: A wedding at Wachesaw Plantation in South Carolina on May 28, 2016. Plantations continue to be popular destinations for events and tourism. Ryan G. Smith / Flickr