Tuscaloosa has plenty to offer travelers, stay-at-home vacationers
Of all the many things swept away, or muted at the least, by the coronavirus pandemic, the freedom to roam weighed heavily on consumers and the travel industry.
With a perception that COVID infections, while still among us, are lessening in severity, some return to "normal" may be happening this summer, despite gas prices soaring above $5 a gallon, and airline tickets likewise flying.
"Our airlines, and the travel industry in general, are really kind of booming now," said Kimberly Severt, associate professor in the University of Alabama's department of human nutrition and hospitality management.
As some begin to feel free to travel, many airlines haven't replaced staff lost during slowdowns. There's also higher demand for seats, with fewer options available.
Fuel costs have also contributed to driving airfares to the highest figures in five years. Figures compiled by the Los Angeles Times, based on Transportation Security Administration data, said flights this summer, June through August, are 47 percent higher than last year at this time, and 34 percent higher than summer 2019.
Still, travelers are weighing options, and finding overall they'd rather move than not, despite costs and other challenges, such as delays in airline boarding and a scarcity of rental cars.
"I think people are having to really look at their budgets, because if they spend more on gas, they're going to not have to spend as much on something else, like food, entertainment or lodging options," Severt said.
"But after people lost that ability to travel during the worst of the pandemic, they decided, no, I'm not giving that up again."
That's even with the heavy economic complication factor that, during the most severe shutdowns, many people lost jobs, while others left them voluntarily, finding risk vs. reward factors pushing them toward change.
Despite steep differences in discretionary income between 2019 and 2022, people still seem eager to travel; that urge may in fact tie in to the sense of exploration stemming from realization that an old job wasn't satisfactory.
Trips on a budget
One form of budgeting that's underway is combining trips, adding a few days to work travel, to cut down on airfares.
"For instance, I have a conference (in Washington, D.C.) in August, so I have to go, but I'm also tagging on a few more days, and making that our vacation, too, instead of having to pay airfare twice," Severt said. Figures show hotel stays have increased, which may stem from such doubling up, she said.
For those who can't spring for doubling, Severt suggests looking at getaways closer to home. She moved here about a decade ago from Boone, North Carolina, and thinks Tuscaloosa and surrounding regions could capitalize more on their natural beauty, much as her former home has. Ongoing riverfront development shows potential, she said, and Tuscaloosa "also could capitalize on the lake options, camping and boating near the lake, and on the (Black Warrior) river.
"I see a lot of people paddle-boarding, and kayaking, but I wonder that more people don't utilize the waterways," she said. The prime riverfront stretch between the main bridges, the Lurleen Wallace twin boulevards downtown, and the Woolsey Finnell on McFarland Boulevard, seems to have slowly opened up to activities and attractions, but much of it seems almost hidden away, she said.
Tuscaloosa is in a good central pivot location for a range of short trips, such as to cabins at Mount Cheaha, DeSoto Caverns at Childersburg, Dismals Canyon at Phil Campbell, or the Sipsey Wilderness at Mount Hope; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville; civil rights monuments, museums and trails in Birmingham and Montgomery; the 10-acre Blount Cultural Park in Montgomery, containing both the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, and the lavish Alabama Shakespeare Festival; or tacking on a few hours, to snowy-white Gulf Coast beaches, or to Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville or New Orleans.
"Even though we're out of the beaten path, per se, we really do have quick access," Severt said. Despite gas prices, it's probably still a bargain to drive. "My son lives in Orlando, and I'd just as soon drive" nine hours, once you count in all the current challenges boarding aircraft, she said. Not to mention that four can travel as cheaply as one, in a car, and at their own pace.
Tuscaloosa summers are typically thought of as slow times, following as we do the collegiate calendar, but some visitors are actually turning to the Druid City, said Kelsey Colglazier Rush, incoming president and CEO of Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports.
"Summertime in my opinion is actually a really great time to come visit Tuscaloosa," she said. It is a great deal slower than fall, when Crimson Tide football fills hotels and restaurants, and spring, when graduates and their families pack the hospitality places. The upside of slower days is that hotel prices are lower, and easier to land, as are dinner choices.
"You can (find it) a little bit easier navigate in and out of our restaurants," she said. There are free, family-friendly events such as the Friday Live at the Plaza concerts, and movies, at downtown's Government Plaza. The Druid City Music Hall has a free Thursday night concert series ongoing.
UA's magnet draws families coming in for Bama Bound orientations. And as with most summers, Tuscaloosa hosts cheerleading and sports camps, and softball and baseball tournaments run by Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, and the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority.
"I'm all about pushing our outdoor recreation right now, too," Rush said. "If you like to hike, kayak, go boating, and fishing, our area is really an untapped resource for that.
"We've technically got six major bodies of water with a 25-minute drive, or less, from downtown Tuscaloosa," she said, "each beautiful in its own ways."
After the Black Warrior River, the major tributary that's the reason the city was founded, as this spot was once the highest navigable port, there's also Lake Tuscaloosa, at 5,885 acres the city's reservoir, completed by damming North River in 1970, at a cost of $7,725,000. It's a major recreational spot, for boating, swimming, skiing, fishing and other activities.
Nearby, more compact and secluded, are the 220-acre Harris Lake, and 384-acre Lake Nicol. The latter has a park, and is frequented for canoeing, swimming and bird-watching.
Hurricane Creek Park is maintained by PARA, and is popular with swimmers, kayakers, paddleboarders, picnickers and hikers. There are restrooms, picnic tables, walking and biking tracks and trails.
Don Staley, the outgoing CEO and president, has been advocating for more fishing on the Black Warrior, and a new tournament is being planned for fall. The city of Northport, in its master plan, is also looking forward to expanding its riverfront and downtown options. TTS is working on a one-stop compilation of information for outdoor activities, that should be completed in coming months, Rush said.
Hospitality is the leading contributor to the state's GDP (gross domestic product) behind medical facilities, Severt said, and Tuscaloosa needs to continue to get its share. A proposed new convention center would help, she said, as many of our expanding hotel base has rooms, but not enough meeting space.
"You've got to have that," Severt said. "Lower-tier cities, they're growing in their group events, conventions, because people don't have maybe the budgets to go to Orlando or Las Vegas, so they look at smaller markets."
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Tuscaloosa has plenty to offer travelers, stay-at-home vacationers