Great Bourbon and Idol Winner Grace South USA Event

Travel South officials gather at a Toronto event on 30JAN, 2024.

Bacon, bourbon and beautiful nature. Not to mention fabulous food, marvellous music, Black history, beaches, museums, wine and wonderful cities such as Nashville and New Orleans.

There are a lot of reasons Canadians flock to the southern states of the U.S. But tourism officials would like to see a titch more travel from north of the border.

Travel South, a collection of 12 southern states (minus Florida, which does its own marketing, thank you) rolled into Canada’s biggest city on 30JAN to trumpet some of their top destinations and activities. They were kind enough to bring along a top chef from South Carolina, a Canadian bourbon expert from Maker’s Mark and former American Idol winner (season five), Taylor Hicks.

Liz Bittner, president and CEO Travel South, said her organization has been coming to Canada to build up cross-border travel since the late 1960’s.

Harold Ho, Royal Scenic; Colin Wood, Air Miles, BMO; Lisa Boardman, CAA National

“I can’t tell you how much we love Canadian visitors,” Bittner said. “Canada is our number one inbound visitor market.”

Bittner and Michael Mangeot, Travel South board member and Commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Tourism, said there were 2.89 million Canadian visitors to the 12 Travel South states in 2019. Those visitors spent $1.1 billion USD.

The 2023 numbers were almost back to that level, they said in a two-on-one interview with Open Jaw. Last year, the 12 states (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi) attracted 2.64 million Canadians. Those visitors spent $980 million.

Bittner said the 12 states that make up Travel South are the size of continental Europe, which helps explain the staggering number of things to see and do.

Canadians used to make most of their trips by car, but increasing airlift (Air Canada in late March begins flights from YYZ to Charleston, South Carolina, as well as spring flights between YUL and St. Louis) means more Canadians are flying to Travel South states, she said.

Lindsay Wood, Maker’s Mark Diplomat, Eastern Canada, explains the bourbon-making process at a Travel South event on 30JAN, 2024.

Mangeot said Canadians love coming to Travel South states to take in amazing nature spots, eat new foods and sample small town charms in places like Augusta, Kentucky, birthplace of George Clooney and home to the Rosemary Clooney House museum.

“But it always comes back to our friendliness and hospitality. Its endemic to the region. If you go into someone’s house, the first thing they’ll always ask is “Have you eaten yet?”

The word “authentic” is overused in tourism, but Mangeot said he can’t think of a better word to describe the 12 Travel South states.

Representatives of seven states were on hand to give a personal run down of their fave activities. Here’s a brief look at a few of the highlights.

Taylor Hicks, American Idol Season Five Winner, plays at a Travel South event on 30JAN, 2024.

NORTH CAROLINA

Veda Gilbert from Visit North Carolina said the state has three main regions; Beaches, The Piedmont and Mountains. Visitors love the Outer Banks for beaches, while the Piedmont is home to cool cities such as Raleigh and Greensboro. The mountains are home to tremendous hiking, the well-known city of Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Your Open Jaw correspondent visited the North Carolina mountains a few years ago and loved the hiking trails, local wines and great food, as well as great country music). Major films and TV shows have been made in the state, including Bull Durham, The Hunger Games and Netflix’s show Outer Banks. North Carolina also has three Relais and Chateaux properties.

ALABAMA

Sweet Home Alabama (the unofficial title for the Alabama Tourism Department, and why not?) is home to the largest space and rocket museum in the U.S. and has 20 beautiful state parks for nature lovers. Brooklyn Lundy from Sweet Home Alabama said the state also offers some 50 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches, a fact that seems to surprise even Alabama residents. Lundy said an Amtrak passenger train will soon link Mobile and New Orleans, and that an Alabama Wine Trail is coming in 2025 with more than 20 wineries. Oh, and Mardi Gras began in Mobile, not New Orleans.

TENNESSEE

The Volunteer State is known as the home of several towering personalities, including Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Jack Daniels. There are more than two dozen distilleries making Tennessee whiskey, said Jill Kilgore from the Department of Tourist Development. The state offers up James Beard nominated chefs, as well as great barbeque restaurants and Nashville hot chicken. Visitors can sleep in an old train station that’s now a hotel, or even in one of Dolly Parton’s former tour buses. There’s wonderful music in Nashville and Memphis, and you can even listen to a live concert in an underground cave. Tennessee shares Great Smoky Mountains National Park with North Carolina. It’s the most visited national park in the U.S. Kilgore also offered up a sweet tip: Tennessee is home to an annual National Banana Pudding Festival.

MISSOURI

Taylor Swift’s favourite state (boyfriend Travis Kelce plays for the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, who will be in the Super Bowl against San Francisco on Feb. 11) is home to two large cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. KC is said to have more fountains than any city outside Rome, and has been named a top destination by both Lonely Planet and the Wall Street Journal, said Katie Blake from the Missouri Division of Tourism. There’s also tremendous barbeque (especially ribs) and great jazz to be found. St. Louis is home to the famous Gateway Arch and also is part of historic Route 66. Springfield, Missouri is known as the birthplace of Route 66, which turns 100 years old in 2026. Missouri also has bountiful nature, including Lake of the Ozarks. “It’s not at all like Ozark the TV show,” she said with a smile.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The state is probably best known as the home of Charleston, one of the world’s favourite cities. Charleston offers great food, history, and architectural charm galore. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains at nearly 400 meters of altitude, Greenville was voted to the New York Times’ list of top places to visit in 2023, and was named tastiest town in the South by Southern Living magazine, said Jayne Baker of Discover South Carolina. Canadians are familiar with Myrtle Beach, which sports 90 golf courses and 100 km’s of beaches along the Grand Strand. Yours truly also recommends kayaking along quiet rivers outside Myrtle Beach and a visit to funky Murrells Inlet, home to fine seafood restaurants and a pretty boardwalk.

WEST VIRGINIA (ALMOST HEAVEN)

Yes, there are tremendous country roads where you can crank up your Spotify list, roll down the windows and let John Denver blast away. It’s a four-season state with tremendous hiking, rigorous rock climbing, and water sports. The state also offers three Dark Sky Preserves and a Waterfall Trail that maps out more than 200 cascades. There are 27 restaurants on the West Virginia Culinary Trail, said Lauren Hough from West Virgina Tourism.

KENTUCKY

Mangeot calls Kentucky “the front porch of the south.” Everything turns green when you roll over the bridge from Cincinnati, he said. Mangeot said 95% of the world’s bourbon - and all the good stuff - comes from Kentucky. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby. The state also has more navigable waterways than any US state outside of Alaska, as well as marvelous caves for hiking and even underground kayaking.

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