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Earn points for free or discounted travel

You can earn airline miles with specific airlines, eMiles, travel websites and credit card rewards points.
Photo courtesy American Airlines

By Marilyn Jones

One of the best ways to earn free or reduced-price travel is by saving points. Hotels, airlines, credit cards, internet advertisement websites and other businesses offer memberships entitling you to earn points. But there are tricks to growing those points. 

  • Stay loyal to one or two airlines and hotel brands if they are the best choice when making reservations
  • Look for free programs where points don’t expire
  • Look for participating merchants where you can add points to your travel accounts
  • Featured here are six rewards or points programs that I use and can recommend.

Best Western Rewards:

  • Points never expire
  • Members are often offered exclusive member rates
  •  Worldwide free night redemption
  • Matches the status of other hotel loyalty programs
  •  Instant rewards
  • Partners with select car rental agencies, airlines and merchants
  • One point per dollar spent. Special promotions will double and triple points as well as offer bonus points
  • Redeemable for free night’s stay, gift cards and merchandise start at 2,500 points
  • Best Western credit card available for additional point opportunities
  • Sign up at www.bestwestern.com/en

American Airlines AAdvantage

Frequent Flyer Miles:

  • Earn miles when you fly on American Airlines, oneworld affiliated airlines and other participating airlines, as well as more than 1,000 other partners including car rentals, hotel stays and dining
  • Oneworld includes British Airways, Finnair and Japan Airlines as well as other non-oneworld airlines including Jet Airways, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airline
  • Use miles for flights, upgrades, vacations, car rentals and hotel stays
  • Flights begin at 7,500 points each way
  • Sign up at www.aa.com

Venture Miles Rewards Credit Card:

  • Unlimited Rewards
  • Earn two miles for every dollar spent on purchases
  • Use Venture card to make travel purchases including any airline, any hotel and rental cars. Once a travel purchase is made with Venture, miles are redeemed as a statement credit toward the cost
  • Rewards don’t expire for the life of the account
  • No transaction fee when making purchases outside of the United States
  • The downside – $0 intro for the first year, $95 a year fee after the first year
  •  For more information and to apply: https://www.capitalone.com/credit-cards/venture

e-Miles.com:

  • Earn airline and hotel points
  • Email notifications are sent with new offers
  • Watch ads, sign up to free services, make a purchase or complete a survey to earn points
  • Earning offers include charities, sweepstakes and other website visits
  • Miles don’t expire
  • Miles can be redeemed for United Airlines and Delta Airlines miles, Hilton Honors and other hotel points, and Starbucks and other gift cards
  • Travel deals offered through the website
  • Apply at www.emiles.com/app/earn

MyPoints.com:

  • Points never expire
  • Go through the website to make online purchases including retail stores, travel websites like Expedia, car rental companies and specific hotels, and purchase gift cards for a specific number of points per dollar
  • Go through the website to search the internet and earn points
  • Download grocery coupons for points
  • Complete surveys and watch videos for points
  • Exchange points for gift cards including gas stations, restaurants, airlines, hotels and retail stores
  • Rewards start at 480 points
  • Get started at www.mypoints.com

Expedia

  • Points never expire
  • Points can be redeemed for all services and reservations on Expedia including flights, hotels and car rentals
  • When using Expedia+, you may still be able to earn your airline frequent flyer points and credit card reward points as well as Expedia+ points on bookings
  • You can use Citi ThankYou and American Express Membership Rewards on Expedia by linking accounts to redeem points on hotels and flights plus earn Expedia+ points
  • No blackout dates
  • Book travel for yourself or anyone else with your Expedia+ points
  • Book family and friends though Expedia+ account to earn points. Each individual still earns their airlines’ frequent flyer miles
  • Service is free
  • Sign up at www.expedia.com

Disease- carrying ticks widespread across Alabama

A collection of ticks found in certain areas in Alabama. (Photo by Emily Merritt)

By David Rainer (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

 As a turkey hunter, I am keenly aware of the threat posed by sneaking through the Alabama woods. And I’m not talking about the danger of encountering a member of the serpent family.

I’m talking about something much, much smaller but possibly just as harmful.

It’s the family of ticks that turkey hunters dread each spring, and the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks is becoming more evident each year.

Emily Merritt, a research associate at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been working on a project since 2015 to determine the species of ticks in Alabama and their ranges.

Merritt said a study on ticks and tick-related illnesses hadn’t been done since the early 1990s, and it was very limited in scope. The study that started in 2015 was to update and expand that research to include field collection sites for ticks.

The most commonly collected ticks included the Lone Star tick, the Gulf Coast tick, the black-legged tick (aka deer tick) and the American dog tick.

The Lone Star tick is the most common tick in Alabama and can transmit a host of diseases, including the alpha-gal red meat allergy, Southern rash disease (a Lyme-like illness), tick paralysis and spotted fever diseases that are closely related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“We found that the Lone Star tick and the Gulf Coast tick are the most aggressive,” Merritt says. The Lone Star tick is found primarily in hardwood stands, while the Gulf Coast tick, which is a little larger and transmits similar diseases, is found primarily in more open areas with shrubs.

The tick that has gained the most notoriety because of its association with Lyme disease is the black-legged tick.

“It is the main culprit for spreading Lyme disease, but it also can spread other illnesses, like anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and tularemia,” Merritt says. “We find black-legged ticks equally in pine and hardwood stands.”

Merritt said the American dog tick also can transmit all the diseases associated with the other tick species.

“As the name implies, they bite dogs a lot,” she says. “We find them in people’s backyards, especially if they’ve got a nice, green lawn and a nearby wooded area. Obviously, people’s dogs are at risk. If their kids play in the backyard or if you’re gardening or landscaping in the yard, people can come in contact with the American dog tick.”

Anglers, hunters respond

One aspect of Merritt’s research includes a survey conducted through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The survey was sent to hunters and anglers to ask about their experiences, knowledge of and costs associated with ticks and tick-borne illnesses.

For those who spend time outdoors, Merritt said the project research found that the most effective deterrent for tick attachment is a spray that contains permethrin.

“You don’t apply it to your skin,” Merritt says. “You spray it on your clothes, boots, hats, socks, backpacks, basically any fabric. When I go camping, I spray my tents and tarps with it. Depending on what brand you get, it will last anywhere from two weeks or two washings to six weeks and six washings.

“More so than bug spray, we found that the products with permethrin significantly reduced the amount of ticks we encountered. It also works well on other biting insects like chiggers and mosquitoes.”

 Although the likelihood of contact with ticks is higher during the warmer months, Merritt said the insects are active year-round in Alabama.

“Be on the lookout, not only on pets, but your children, your loved ones and yourself,” she says. “If you go outside, there is the potential to come in contact with ticks. When you come back inside, check your clothes and gear immediately to see if there are any crawling ticks on you, your pets or children. Then take it a step further and check your body thoroughly for ticks. If you need to use a mirror or a partner, do that. Ticks can hide in all sorts of areas that are hard to see.

“And the longer a tick is attached, the better the chances are to get a tick-borne illness if that tick is harboring that illness.”

Removing a tick

If you do find a tick attached to your body, Merritt said don’t haphazardly try to remove the insect.

“Don’t try to pick it off with your fingers or burn it off with a match or anything like that,” she says. “Get tweezers and get as close to the skin as you possibly can. Firmly grasp the tick where it attached to your body and start pulling with steady, even pressure until it eventually releases. It might be uncomfortable and a little painful, but you want to get that tick off as soon as you can.”

Merritt said tick-borne illnesses may cause symptoms as early as a couple of days, but symptoms could also occur as late as a couple of months after the exposure.

“If you start to experience flu-like symptoms, like aches and pain, or you see an expanding red rash, sometimes spotted and sometimes circular, you need to see a doctor,” she says. “It’s normal for a bite to be red, but if you see an expanding rash or it seems to be spreading to other parts of your body, that’s a clear indication that you do have a tick-borne illness.”

Merritt said if the tick is found it can be saved for testing by taping it to an index card, placing it in a freezer bag and storing it in the freezer.

“But don’t wait for test results,” she said. “If you think you have a tick-borne illness, your doctor should go ahead and start treatment. For most tick-borne illnesses, that involves treatment with antibiotics. For tick paralysis, it’s removal of the tick. For the alpha-gal allergy there is no treatment. You just have to avoid eating red meat, and that’s terrible.”

For more information, go to www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-2315/ANR-2315.pdf or www.alabamalymedisease.org, the Alabama Lyme Disease Association’s website.

Meet the electric John Deere

In 2017, John Deere showcased the first, fully battery-powered tractor. This technological innovation is truly the first of its kind. Nicknamed SESAM, for Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery, this all-electric tractor is modeled after John Deere’s 6r series tractors.

Green and yellow are arguably the second-most American set of colors, behind red, white and blue, of course. This rings true particularly for those who operate John Deere machinery on a daily basis, as the growth of our nation is supremely dependent on the country’s agriculture industry, including the good folks who support it.

Technology in recent years has been the catalyst for the boom and bust of many industries. In the past decade or so, advancements in farming technology have primarily been focused on automation and precision, but with the automobile industry moving towards electric vehicles, the ag-industry is following suit.

John Deere showcased the first, fully battery-powered tractor in 2017 at SIMA, an international agribusiness tradeshow in Paris. This technological innovation was given a ‘special mention’ as it truly the first of its kind. Nicknamed SESAM, for Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery, this all-electric tractor is modeled after John Deere’s 6r series tractors.

In a press release by John Deere, SESAM is said to have all of the same “features and functionality of a ‘conventional’ tractor while offering the benefits of electric power.” This emissions-free tractor runs at a lower noise level than other traditional tractors and is operated using two independent electric motors. The electrification of this tractor simplifies the moving parts and thus, greatly reduces the need for maintenance.

These two motors power an adapted DirectDrive transmission, producing 130 kilowatts of continuous power with a peak output of 400 horsepower, according to Farm-Equipment.com. The website also affirms that the tractor takes 3 hours to fully charge and can run up to 4 hours in the field with speeds ranging from 2 to 30 mph. As a comparison, the Tesla model 3 may have a capacity of up to 75 kilowatt hours of battery storage (kWh), providing a range of about 310 miles. The SESAM has a capacity of 130 kWh with a range of about 34 miles, which means that this tractor uses a lot more electricity in a shorter period of time.

In order for the SESAM to take off, the battery capacity will need to expand to support the sun-up to sun-down longevity of farm work. In fact, the President and CEO of Autonomous Tractor Corporation, Kraig Schulz, purported that a 200 horsepower electric tractor would hypothetically need about 1,500 kWh of batteries to complete a full day’s work. As energy storage technology continues to advance, it’s only a matter of time before John Deere manufactures a tractor that can meet this need.

Although SESAM’s battery technology may not yet be practical for a full day of farming, the all-electric tractor is a very exciting development for the agriculture industry. This is one of many future steps in the direction of electrifying agricultural machinery and integrating this equipment with renewables. As the press release stated, “The SESAM tractor is a major part of John Deere’s vision of the energy-independent farm of the future.”

This push towards electrification of farm machinery in lieu of using fossil fuels directly supports the beneficial electrification movement. This concept, known fully as “environmentally beneficial electrification,” is gaining traction among a growing number of groups in the U.S. including local electric cooperatives. Frequently promoted as a means to reducing greenhouse gases and helping the environment, beneficial electrification also helps consumers by providing products that are cleaner, quieter and easier to maintain. John Deere’s SESAM tractor does just that.

Kaley Lockwood writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Social security: How the retirement rules work for you

Retirement doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. Some people plan to retire and never work again. Some people plan for second careers in occupations that wouldn’t have adequately supported their families, but they do the work for pure enjoyment. Some people, whether by design or desire, choose to work part-time or seasonally to supplement their retirement income.

Retirees (or survivors) who choose to receive Social Security benefits before they reach full retirement age (FRA) and continue to work have an earnings limit. In 2017, the annual earnings limit was $16,920 for those under FRA the entire calendar year. In 2018, it is $17,040. If you earn over the limit, we deduct $1 from your Social Security monthly benefit payment for every $2 you earn above the annual limit.

In the calendar year you reach FRA, which you can check out at socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/ageincrease.html, you have a higher earnings limit. Additionally, we will only count earnings for the months prior to FRA. In 2017, the limit was $44,880. In 2018, it is $45,360. In the year of FRA attainment, Social Security deducts $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above the limit.

There is a special rule that usually only applies in your first year of receiving retirement benefits. If you earn more than the annual earnings limit, you may still receive a full Social Security payment for each month you earn less than a monthly limit. In 2018, the monthly limit is $1,420 for those who are below FRA the entire calendar year. The 2018 monthly limit increases to $3,780 in the year of FRA attainment.

Once you reach FRA, you no longer have an earnings limit, and we may recalculate your benefit to credit you for any months we withheld your benefits due to excess earnings. This is because your monthly benefit amount is calculated based on a reduction for each month you receive it before your FRA. So, if you originally filed for benefits 12 months before your FRA, but earned over the limit and had two months of Social Security benefits withheld, we will adjust your ongoing monthly benefit amount to reflect that you received 10 months of benefits before your FRA, and not 12.

Most people understand that if they work while receiving benefits before FRA, their benefit may be reduced. What most people do not consider in their retirement planning is that we recalculate your Social Security monthly benefit at FRA to credit you for Social Security benefit payments withheld due to earnings over the limit. Explaining the earnings limit is another way that Social Security helps secure your today and tomorrow.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

Rural health: Drones offer exciting promise in rural Alabama

A drone delivers medical supplies to the annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) in Wise County, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox

Rapidly emerging new technologies offer a reason for excitement in caring for the health of Alabama’s rural areas.  Alabama faces a great challenge to provide adequate and quality health care for one of the country’s most unhealthy populations.  The use of drones (also called unmanned aircraft systems UAS) is one such promising technology that we need to be prepared to embrace and develop plans for using.

Military and smart phone technologies have played major roles in the rapid development of drone technology and capability.  Having the ability to inspect from above and move in straight lines offer many advantages that surface bound travel does not have.  This technology continues to advance at a rapid pace with drones getting faster, being able to carry heavier cargos, and travel greater distances without the cost of gasoline.  The futuristic city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is even considering the use of passenger-carrying drones that are manufactured in China.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based company, has been transporting medical supplies and life-saving blood to and bringing back specimens for laboratory testing from dozens of remote hospitals in Rwanda since October 2016.  Lighter air traffic allowed governmental restrictions to be much less restrictive in Rwanda than in the U.S.  Zipline has announced plans to work with state governments across the country to launch its medical drone delivery in the U.S.

This will not be the first such use of drones in the U.S.  Since July 2015, The Health Wagon and Remote Area Medical have partnered to provide medication delivery in the Appalachian area of Wise County in far southwest Virginia.

Drones are already being used for purposes in addition to health care in the U.S.  There is much promise for agricultural applications, including crop inspection and treatment.  Package delivery, search and rescue activities, aerial photography, parking lot and other security monitoring, damage surveying, and firefighting are only a few other examples.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Birmingham office, two waivers allowing the use of drones in Alabama have been approved.  These waivers allow for drones to be used for weddings, parties, other events, boating and water sports, video production, construction, construction inspection, roof inspection, agriculture, surveying, mapping, and other such applications.  No health-related services are being provided.

Safety and legal concerns appear to be the major obstacles.  Safety issues involve birds and areas with heavy airplane traffic.  There are a number of legal issues, including that of personal privacy.

Alabama’s leadership and other stakeholders involved in the future use of drones in providing health-related activity are encouraged to start preparing for the use of this promising innovation.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Alabama snapshots: Gone fishin’

Jeff and Laiklind fishing in Cullman. SUBMITTED BY Janice Casey, Cullman.

SUBMITTED BY Michelle Burnham, Brewton.

Earl Reed “Gramps” and Karl Taylorson just shy of Gramps’ 96th birthday. SUBMITTED BY Emily Taylorson, Seale.

3-year-old John Curtis trout fishing with his daddy, David, below Smith Lake Dam. SUBMITTED BY Brenda Landers, Cullman.

Iris’ first fish, caught at Little River in Dekalb County. SUBMITTED BY Mike Elkins, Gurley.

Rusty and (baby) Rhett fishing at a pond in Burnt Corn. SUBMITTED BY Rusty Salter, Daphne.

Avery Menefee fishing at sunset. SUBMITTED BY Heather Menefee, Pine Level.

Mason Hodges caught “the big one” in his PawPaw’s pond and now it’s mounted on his bedroom wall. SUBMITTED BY Tim Tuggle, Danville.

Submit Your Images! August Theme: “First day of school” Deadline for August: June 30. Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Restoring the roar on Lake Guntersville

Photo by Chris Denslow

By John N. Felsher

After more than 30 years of absence, boat races will return to the largest lake in Alabama when the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest comes to the northeastern part of the state on June 22-24.

“Lake Guntersville has a long history of boat racing with many world records set on these waters,” says Katy Norton, the president of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau in the town of Guntersville. “Races have been held on the lake since the lake formed in 1939. We had annual boat racing events all the way through 1986. Because boat racing had such a history on the lake, we felt it would be a great time to bring the races back during the state bicentennial celebration.”

After the qualifying events on June 22, two types of craft will race across the waters for the next two days. Sometimes called “NASCAR on the Water,” H1 Unlimited hydroplanes propelled by turbine engines producing more than 3,000 horsepower can hit speeds exceeding 220 miles per hour as they race around a two-mile oval course. These powerful boats can throw “roostertails,” or streams of water that can reach 60 feet high and a football field long.

“This is the first year that we’ve brought the boat races back to Lake Guntersville since 1986 and this will be the first time we’ve had the H1 Unlimited Hydroplanes here since 1969,” Norton says. “We’re really glad to see this type of event come back to Lake Guntersville.”

The famed Miss Budweiser, the boat that won the 1969 races, will be on static display. Normally, people who want to see this historic craft must travel to a museum in Seattle, Wash., but for three days, people can climb aboard it on the shores of Lake Guntersville and take photos of themselves at the controls.

Guntersville Lake Hydrofest will kick off another season of H1 Unlimited hydroplane racing in the country. Drivers only race these craft in five cities. Besides Guntersville, the smallest venue on the circuit this year, the boats will race in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, the Tri-Cities area of Washington state and Madison, Ind.

“We’re the smallest community by far that’s going to host the races this year, but that’s a testament to the quality of the lake and the history we have here with boat racing,” Norton says. “It’s our goal to make this an annual event and bring back boat racing to the lake as part of our summer activities.”

Drivers in smaller hydroplanes will also race against each other in front of the crowds gathered along Sunset Drive on the lake shoreline in the town of Guntersville. These “Grand Prix World” hydroplanes measure about 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. With 1,300-horsepower engines, they can hit speeds topping 170 miles per hour.

When not watching the boats zoom across the waves, people can participate in many other activities on shore. Wakeboarders will give demonstrations on the lake. Vendors will offer food and refreshments. Children can enjoy visiting a special area and activities set aside just for them. Besides Miss Budweiser, people can also see static displays of various boats among other events and activities on tap for the three days of celebration.

“People don’t want to miss the opening ceremonies, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 23,” Norton says. “The National Guard will do a water jump, parachuting into the water. We’ll also have some flyovers.”

At 7 p.m. that Saturday evening, a country music concert will be held at the Lurleen B. Wallace pavilion. Rising star Suzi Oravec will open, followed by the headliner, A Thousand Horses, a band known for its hit song “Smoke.”

Norton said she expects to see more than 20,000 people come to hear the roaring engines and enjoy the other festivities in a town normally with a population less than half that size. Some people might come a few days early to fish the famed bass lake that spreads across 69,100 acres and stretches 75 miles along the old Tennessee River channel. Others may simply relax before the big event or partake in some other recreational activities available in the area. For area information, see www.marshallcountycvb.com.

“We expect people to come from all over Alabama, across the Southeast and from many other states,” Norton says. “We’ve had calls from people coming from as far away as California and Washington. Some people will come a few days early to enjoy the lake and the area before the races begin and stay through the weekend. This should be a major economic boon to the town of Guntersville and the surrounding area.”

For schedules, event maps, ticket information and other details, see www.guntersvillelakehydrofest.com or the event page on Facebook. People can also call the Marshall County CVB at 256-582-7015.

Photo by Chris Denslow

Making visitors feel welcome in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Grand Bay staffer Becky Clark hands a visitor a copy of Alabama Living. Copies of the magazine are sent to each center every month.
1 Ardmore Welcome Center, I-65, Elkmont
2 Dekalb Welcome Center, I-59, Valley Head
3 Cleburne Welcome Center, I-20 E, Heflin
4 Lanett Welcome Center, I-85 S, Lanett
5 Houston Welcome Center, US 231 S, Cottonwood
6 Baldwin Welcome Center, I-10, Seminole
7 Grand Bay Welcome Center, I-10 E, Grand Bay
8 Sumter Welcome Center, I-59, Cuba

“Welcome to Alabama!”

If you’ve walked through the doors of one of Alabama’s eight State Welcome Centers, those words no doubt would have greeted you.

“We don’t know if they’re from Alabama,” says Trisa Collier, center administrator, but every employee makes sure each visitor is welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. “Some will say, ‘I’m from Alabama,’ or ‘I was born in Alabama and I’m back to visit.’” Others will have come from as far away as Germany, Canada or Mexico. They may not speak English well, if it all. No matter. The welcome centers are there to help.

Last year, a record 1.3 million people visited the centers, on their way to Alabama and points north, south, east and west.

The centers are owned and maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the lobbies are staffed by the Department of Tourism. The number of tourism representatives at each center varies from five to seven, depending on the traffic.

“Grand Bay has seven because their center is so big,” says Collier. “It was built to be a staging area for storms so they could accommodate more people.” The center, on I-10 East at the southernmost tip of Mobile County, was rebuilt and expanded in 2016 and displays original art, including carvings of beach scenes in the brick exterior walls and a large fiberglass oyster painted by Mobile artist Lucy Gafford featuring sites around Alabama.

A welcome wave from Cleburne Welcome Center staff, from left, Lucy Bachus, Courtney Nelson, Kathy Freeman, Tabetha Akins and Lora Walker.

“Our oyster is called ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” says Grand Bay tourist promotion representative Emily White. The oyster is part of the Oyster Trail, an educational scavenger hunt through coastal Alabama to support the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program.

Each center is stocked with brochures about sites throughout the state, divided by geographic regions. And representatives, wearing their trademark “Sweet Home Alabama” shirts, are equipped to answer questions about destinations, both in their area and beyond.

“We want them to feel that this is the best place they’ve been to, when they come to our centers,” says Collier. “You know the old adage, ‘people may not remember what you say but they’ll always remember how you made them feel’? That’s what I tell my staff.”

Before employees are hired, they must first be certified through the state Personnel Department, Collier says, and she sits in on all interviews. “We’re looking for people with customer service experience, who have worked directly with the public,” she says. After hiring, it’s “mostly on the job training” she adds. “Then after they start, we do familiarization tours where we take them to different parts of the state, because if you’ve been there, it’s easier to tell others about it.”

Each year the employees have a retreat at a tourist destination, such as the OWA Amusement Park in Foley in 2017. They’ve also been to Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Birmingham, Montgomery and other cities.

“We get a lot of international visitors,” says Gerlena Hall, manager at the Sumter Welcome Center in Cuba, off I-59 in west Alabama. Many of them want to know about the civil rights movement and the sites associated with it.

“We get a lot of traffic from Louisiana and Texas during summer breaks,” says White, with most heading for the beaches in Alabama, Florida or to Disney World.

International visitors, meanwhile, usually aren’t beachgoers but are looking for historic sites. Some are visiting all the state capitals.

Visitors to the Ardmore Welcome Center enjoy having their photo made in this lobby display, as demonstrated by staffers Jessica Jackson, Bernice Hobson and Asheley Harris.

Visitors have questions, they have answers

Sometimes visitors ask unusual questions, depending on where they are from. “A lot of people from the north ask, ‘What is Mardi Gras?’” says White, who is only too happy to explain the annual celebration.

Becky Clark, another employee at Grand Bay, was once asked, “Where is Greenbow, Alabama?” referring to the town where Forrest Gump lived in the movie of the same name. She explained it wasn’t a real town, but that Bayou La Batre is a real town not far from the welcome center, where they could see scenes and shrimp boats from the movie. “They were very excited to buy some fresh shrimp right off the boat!” White says.

At the Cleburne Welcome Center off I-20 East in Heflin, manager Kathy Freeman says they are often asked for restaurant recommendations. “They don’t want chain restaurants, but something local,” she says. “If I’ve eaten there, I’ll tell them about it. We want them to stay in Alabama and leave their money here.”

The Welcome Centers have had their share of famous visitors and even animals. Some years ago, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, likely on their way to an event in Birmingham, stopped at the Cleburne center for a break. Comedian Jerry Clower, musician Bret Michaels and Penny Marshall of “Laverne & Shirley” fame have visited the Sumter center.

Every center has had its share of visitors with health emergencies. “Medical emergencies happen infrequently,” but staff have a plan in place, says Collier. They can call 911 and an oxygen machine is available if needed.

Some of the most popular items the welcome centers provide to visitors are copies of Alabama Living. Two hundred copies are shipped to each center every month. “Travelers want recipes and we show them the recipes in the magazine and all the other good information,” says Freeman. “They love Alabama Living.”

Selling Alabama to international travelers

Andy Facer, Alabama’s representative for the UK and Ireland travel market, checks out a NASA astronaut suit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

By Minnie Lamberth

Andy Facer was born and raised in the United Kingdom and lives in Cambridgeshire, yet he works full-time to promote trips to Alabama. He’s the state’s tourism representative for the UK and Ireland travel market.

Alabama has a lot of benefits to sell, Facer notes. “The Alabama people are some of the friendliest I have met and always keen to share their own unique stories and experiences,” he said. “During my tour of the state last year, I was wowed by how different each area is and the diversity. You can get a totally different experience in a few hours traveling by road.” 

Facer began representing Alabama in January 2017 as a contractor through Global Travel Marketing. “We work very closely with our partners in the UK travel trade,” Facer says. “We embark on multiple joint marketing activities throughout the year, highlighting the diversity that Alabama offers – from the amazing beaches on the Gulf Coast, our civil rights history, wonderful recording studios in the Shoals and our unique space experiences in Huntsville. This is all enhanced by training sessions with their selling teams.”

Janin Nachtweh, based in Berlin, promotes Alabama in Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany. When she began as a contract representative in January 2016, Alabama hadn’t had a representative focused on this market for about 15 years. “The knowledge of Alabama was nearly zero,” Nachtweh says. Since then, she has been reaching out to tour operators, attending travel trade shows and working with the media to sell the state’s story. Currently 24 tour operators include Alabama in their offerings.

“Alabama is always a big surprise,” Nachtweh says. Tour operators may have heard of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t realize that the civil rights movement started in Montgomery. They may be familiar with the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his involvement in the American space program, but they don’t realize his relationship to Huntsville and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. They are familiar with famous musicians who have recorded at Muscle Shoals, but they don’t know about the renowned production studios there. Nachtweh’s marketing activities help tour operators learn about the state’s opportunities.

The Alabama Tourism Department also has a contract with Ying “Springna” Zhao to promote Alabama to travelers in China. According to Deputy Director Grey Brennan, “China is one of the fastest growing international tourism markets – growth is exceedingly high.” Though based in Montgomery, Zhao is a native of China and is able to talk with decision makers who aren’t comfortable speaking in English. “Springna bridges that gap,” Brennan says.

Alabama shares a number of representatives to reach additional international markets. For example, Travel South USA, a coalition of 12 southern states, is one of the oldest regional organizations promoting tourism in America. “We band together to promote the South as an international destination to visitors,” Brennan says. “Through Travel South there are six countries that have representatives that promote Alabama and other states. These representatives as a whole will talk to tour companies to try to put Alabama destinations in their offerings.”

Berlin-based Janin Nachtweh, on a recent visit to Alabama, visits the Sumter Welcome Center. She promotes travel to Alabama in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

As part of a southern trip, many travelers will key in on such destinations as Nashville or New Orleans or other areas that surround Alabama. By partnering with other states, Alabama attractions get included in the tour. “So when visitors come to do these southern vacations, they also come to Alabama,” Brennan says.

Alabama’s growth as an international destination is important to the state’s tourism efforts. Tourism is, after all, an economic engine, and international visitors tend to spend more dollars in their travel in the U.S. than domestic visitors do. “It’s wise to attract those visitors,” Brennan says.

“People from other countries go on vacation more often than Americans. America is a key place for them to go,” he adds. Often, a first trip to the United States may be to a major destination spot, such as New York City. “The South is that next experience, and Alabama is a key part of the South.”

Alabama’s tourism opportunities cover a variety of categories – including history, golf, museums and the outdoors. Yet international travelers won’t realize that these opportunities exist without coordinated promotional strategies. “Very few people stumble on this information magically on their own,” Brennan says. “To be a tourist destination is a lot of work behind the scenes.”

New U.S. Civil Rights Trail links 14 states, over 100 landmarks

Voting rights marchers clashed violently with law enforcement on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” continues to be commemorated each year. Photo courtesy U.S. Civil Rights Trail

Visitors can literally walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, John Lewis and other African-American activists, thanks to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail that launched earlier this year on King’s birthday.

Southern tourism departments have curated a list of more than 100 museums, churches, courthouses and other landmarks pivotal to the advancement of social equality during the volatile 1950s and 1960s.

Famous sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s, where sit-ins began; the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.; and Dr. King’s birthplace in Atlanta are anchors.

“Two years ago when National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis challenged historians to inventory surviving civil rights landmarks, Georgia State University found 60, which became the foundation of the trail,” says Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell. (Read an interview with Sentell on Page 26.) The 12 state tourism agencies known collectively as Travel South USA supplemented the list with other worthy sites.

“We feel that the trail will encourage Americans to better understand their history,” says Travel South’s president, Liz Bittner. Several major international tour operators have added civil rights destinations since the concept was previewed in London several months ago, she adds.

The website civilrightstrail.com profiles the landmarks and offers an interactive map, interviews with foot soldiers, past and present photographs, and 360-degree video as special features.

The trail stretches from schools in Topeka, Kansas, known for the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation court decision in 1954, to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where King delivered his “I have A Dream” speech in 1963.

Places where blacks died at the hands of opponents to desegregation are scattered across the Deep South. The courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where two white men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till walked free in 1955, has been restored, as has the home where voting-rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 in Jackson, Miss., hours after President John Kennedy proposed major civil rights legislation.

Also on the trail is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls died in a Sunday morning bombing in 1963 after federal courts ordered local schools integrated. It remains an active church.

Lesser known sites include the birthplace of Whitney Young in Simpsonville, Ky.; the Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House in Charleston, W.V.; and Moton High School in Farmville, Va. Sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns organized a school strike there in 1951 demanding facilities equal to those of whites, which generated a lawsuit that was consolidated into the Topeka case.

Several sites predate the modern civil rights era, notably St. Louis’s Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case originated; the historic Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans; and museums for the Scottsboro Boys and the Tuskegee Airmen, both in Alabama.

Heritage tourists can learn about King at numerous locations in Atlanta, including Ebenezer Baptist Church, his birthplace, the site of his interment at the King Center founded by Coretta Scott King, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. King’s first church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist, where the bus boycott was organized in 1955, and its parsonage in Montgomery are must-visit sites on any civil rights tour.

King’s most famous quotes are linked to specific sites. When he was arrested during the 1963 Easter shopping boycott, he wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” At the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, he famously said, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The night before his death in Memphis, he said at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Montgomery Youth Tour students visit the Civil Rights Memorial, which records the names of those killed during the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo by Laura Stewart

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis re-creates large-scale scenes of notable events of the movement and details the 1968 assassination of King. This museum is recommended, as are five others, including the International Civil Rights Museum in the former Greensboro Woolworth’s.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia labored more than 16 years to fund and establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to wide acclaim a year ago in Washington, D.C. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which houses the door to King’s former jail cell, faces the park where fire hoses and dogs were used to terrorize youthful protesters in 1963.

Jackson hosts the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the only one sponsored by a state. Small theaters inside recount the stories of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. Many of King’s papers are collected at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The website civilrightstrail.com offers 360-degree video of landmarks in Memphis, Little Rock, Birmingham, Washington, Atlanta, Topeka, Selma and Montgomery. The website also allows visitors to compare historic photographs with current views of the same scenes in Memphis, Little Rock, Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Topeka and Greensboro.

Veteran foot soldiers recount their experiences from a half-century ago on video. Bruce Boynton discusses his 1958 arrest in a Richmond, Virginia, bus station that led to the Freedom Rides in 1961, and Bernard LaFayette Jr., the roommate of rides organizer John Lewis, recalls being attacked and beaten at the bus station in Montgomery.

The Rev. Arthur Price Jr. talks about the history of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and tour guide Wanda Howard Battle sings inside Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery. (Battle’s talk to Montgomery Youth Tour participants is one of the most popular parts of MYT each year.)

The people, locations and destinations included in the Civil Rights Trail provide a way for families, travelers and educators to experience history firsthand and tell the story of how “what happened here changed the world.”

For more information, or to begin your journey on the trail, please visit civilrightstrail.comArticle courtesy of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.


New museum and memorial opens

A new memorial dedicated to the victims of lynching and racial terror opened in April in Montgomery, to national acclaim and attention.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which confronts a disturbing period in American history, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people and those terrorized by lynching and racial segregation.

The memorial was conceived and built by the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy organization in Montgomery, and grew out of the EJI’s exhaustive research into thousands of racial terror lynchings.

A companion to the memorial is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which dramatizes the enslavement of African Americans and depicts the evolution of racial terror lynchings.

The museum is located at 115 Coosa St.; the memorial is at 417 Caroline St. For more information on both, visit museumandmemorial.eji.org