The flag-tourism connection: If you lower it, they will come

By Shelia Watson

The flag boycott has the nation’s eyes turned once again toward South Carolina—although, let’s be honest, most of those eyes are rolling. As a city voted “friendliest” in a recent national poll and retaining a position on the “best places to visit” listing, Charleston’s reputation is taking quite a beating these days, especially since we happen to be where the Late Unpleasantness started.

Enough has been written about the effects of the flag boycott on the local economy, so a recital of the issue isn’t necessary beyond the no-brainer “in a tourism economy, no visitors equals no money.” On the other hand, my philosophy is “Hey, what’s one more opinion?” With that in mind, I offer a few solutions to help area businesses overcome the economic effects of the boycott:

Stage your own march. Mayor Riley’s trek up to Columbia a few years ago made a dramatic statement to the nation that Charlestonians can and will use up an entire work week to walk somewhere that would take two hours to drive. You too can make the same dramatic statement by staging a march (bulletproof vests optional). And just about any destination will do. I personally favor the long, long hike into Starbucks in the morning. Sometimes I get in extra miles rambling into Godiva chocolatiers.

Sneak in your own tourists and train them to be locals. This can be a challenge. Getting them to ditch the bermuda shorts and cameras is easy. The hard part is getting them to act like they’ve lived here a while. The best way to do that is to have them listen to a motivational tape of local buzzwords and buzzphrases. Some of the more effect ones include: “The school district should be deconsolidated” alternating with “The school district needs tighter control,” “The tourists take up all the good parking spaces downtown” and “Did you hear what John Graham Altman said the other day?” Have them repeat these several times a day. Pretty soon they’ll be conversing with the natives and may even be asked to run for office.

Distance yourself from the issue. Don’t fall victim to guilt by association. Point out that it’s Columbia flying the flag, not Charleston. Complain loudly about those upstaters. Tell everyone we wouldn’t have this problem if they’d move the state capital back to the Lowcountry. If all else fails, divert attention to the latest Hollywood breakup and/or news anchor meltdown.

Boycott the boycott and visit the tourist spots yourself. This will at least keep some cash flowing, even if it is our own cash—and it’ll let potential visitors know that tourism is still happening. But try not to let on that you live here. Ask tourist questions like “How do I get to Dock Street so I can visit the Dock Street Theatre?” and “Do they really sell slaves in the old slave market?” Try to bump into national media doing on-the-spot reporting and tell them you haven’t seen flags of any kind in Charleston. Boost our “friendliest city ” stats by recounting heartwarming human-interest stories (you don’t have to mention that the persons in the stories are your relatives).

And remember to tip generously.

Published in Charleston Regional Business Journal