A beach-goer wears a hat expressing his love for Alabama. Coastal Alabama’s beaches are popular attractions for residents in the Southeast and Midwest.(file photo)
When Jeremy Dorn visited Birmingham and Tuscaloosa for the first time last November, he didn’t know what to expect.
A California native and Hillary Clinton supporter, Dorn came to Alabama to visit friends and attend a University of Alabama football game. He happened to be in Alabama on Election Night.
"I have to be honest, I had people straight up ask me why I was visiting Alabama," said Dorn, 28, a freelance writer who lives near San Francisco. "The people I’ve spoken with back here (in the Bay Area), that’s their general impression of southern states, ‘it’s so conservative.’ It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s so different from California that the stereotypes fall into place in your head."
Partisanship continues to dominate cultural aspects of American lives. And data shows that divide spills over into choices of places to visit and vacation.
The divide is the subject of a recent New York Times piece by W. Kamau Bell, the CNN personality whose "United Shades of America" highlights the sometimes awkward relationships between left-leaning and right-leaning worldviews.
Bell, whose father is Mobile insurance executive Walter Bell, wrote: "Nobody I know from the Bay Area has any interest in purposefully spending time in Alabama. Florida, maybe, but Alabama? Nah, that’s a hard pass."
Visitor profile statistics to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores back up Bell’s point.
Baldwin County is enjoying a streak of six straight years of record-breaking tourism since the BP oil spill. And it’s being driven by visitors from states that backed Donald Trump last fall.
People in blue states in the Northwest and West, where Democrat Hillary Clinton won, generally aren’t coming here.
In fact, a map of visitors in 2014-15, produced for the tourism arm of the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, looks like the 2016 election map.
Alabama residents are the top visitors to the beaches of its own state, but other states follow suit, and almost all of them backed Trump: Mississippi, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
The only outliers are the Clinton states of Illinois and Maryland.
Illinois might be the biggest anomaly in that it ranked No. 4 among states-of-origin visitors to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach during the winter months, and was tied for 10th during the summer.
In San Francisco, by contrast, tourists come from some of the largest cities in the U.S., according to the San Francisco Travel Association. On the list are New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston. No southern city gets a mention.
According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Republicans view Democrats as "harmful" to the country. However, more than half of Democrats claim to be "afraid" of conservatives.
"It is one of my enduring frustrations with this country," wrote Bell. "People live in their part of the Union, and if they don’t travel a lot, then there is a tendency to believe that the other parts of America couldn’t possibly be as American as their part."
Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said what Bell’s views track what’s known as "contact theory" in social psychology. According to the theory, inter-group hostility "can be reduced by inter-group contact."
"People in Alabama and California are not as different as the people in each state tend to think," said Fording. "There are a lot of conservative and liberals in each state – just somewhat more of the former in Alabama and somewhat more of the latter in California."
He added, in an email, "Around 4 in 10 voters vote Democrat in Alabama, but because of our electoral rules, our elected officials are nearly all Republicans. The reverse is true for most of the deep blue states, where there are sizable populations of Republicans (and Trump supporters). The difference between 4 in 10 and 6 in 10 is just not that big of a difference and certainly doesn’t warrant the kind of stereotyping that goes on."
Alabama has beaches?
Helena Brantley, a 42-year-old non-fiction book publicist living in Oakland, Calif., read Bell’s piece and can identify with those who’re unaware of the fact that Alabama even has beaches.
"The reason I’d go to Alabama for purposes of a vacation is either if I knew someone or the price was really good," she said.
But Bell’s piece intrigued her. Her family, about five years ago, traveled to Charleston, S.C., where she was "blown away" with the lush scenery, pristine beaches and the city’s vibrancy.
Now, she’d like to see Alabama someday.
Brantley was a participant in the Alabama/California Conversation Project, a collaboration between AL.com and Spaceship Media, a journalism nonprofit in California. After the election, a group of 25 women from Alabama who supported Trump and 25 women from California’s San Francisco Bay Area who supported Clinton, were placed in near constant conversation online.
"I thought, ‘Wow,’ given the tension we had in the group, that was significant. It’s a willingness to engage."
Brantley has continued on with that communication through the Facebook group "CaliBama." She even suggested that Alabama could capitalize on the divide: "You say ‘red states’ to some people, their eyes will roll," said Brantley. "But I think for people who see this current moment in time as an opportunity to move outside your comfort zone or your familiar zone, then yes, I think some smart marketing could entice people."
Lee Sentell, the director of the Alabama Tourism Department, doesn’t think it’s a bad thing that outsiders are unfamiliar with the state’s thriving beach scene. He said the surprise factor from first-time visitors — particularly those from the Midwest — creates its own organic marketing campaign.
Said Sentell: "When people from the Midwest hear about our beaches and they come down and experience the great hospitality in the Mobile and Gulf Shores area, and those people then go back home and announce to their friends and neighbors that they have discovered a new and beautiful destination, they become sales agents for us."
One obstacle to launching a major media effort to spread the Alabama beach message to distant points is the cost.
"California is a very expensive market," said Sentell. "It’s unlikely we would mount a major general audience campaign just because it is an expensive media market."
Another obstacle is logistics: Beach-bound visitors to Alabama almost always drive.
Still, Alabama tourism officials have tried their hand in luring New York visitors, following Florida’s lead. According to 2013 statistics from the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors — which represents Florida Panhandle coastal cities like Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island – New York is the No. 2 state-of-origin for visitors to Florida, trailing only Georgia.
Last summer, Sentell and his staff visited New York City and participated in a week of activities to promote Alabama. At one major intersection in Manhattan, tourism officials set up a display allowing New Yorkers to "sit in a lounge chair and rub their feet in beautiful Gulf Shores sand," said Sentell.
He said, "The comment we heard the most often from people that week is ‘we didn’t know Alabama had a beach.’"
Grant Brown, spokesman with the city of Gulf Shores, said that coastal officials have long battled the lack of knowledge that Alabama is home to 32-miles of beaches. He said that, ironically, one of the "good" things to come out of the 2010 BP oil spill was that BP spent millions of dollars of advertising to showcase Alabama’s coastal region.
California’s Dorn will dip his toes into the Alabama beaches for the first time later this month. He’s visiting Gulf Shores for the popular Hangout music festival. He’s only seen pictures of what the beaches look like, but calls them "amazing."
"I’m more surprised by the quality of the beaches," he said. "I knew there were beaches, but I never thought they’d be super nice beaches."
Dorn’s return trip to Alabama takes place about one month before he’ll move to Nashville and continue with his writing career. He said he wouldn’t have made a permanent move to the South if he had not received a good impression last year.
Said Dorn: "I have plenty of friends (in the Bay Area) who are interested in traveling and are open-minded about different states. It was fun to be asked about the trip and whether Alabama was ‘cool.’ Overall, I loved it."
Coastal Alabama tourism officials like to tout a key statistic each year: A whopping 97 percent of respondents to the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach query are committed to returning.
CNN’s Bell wrote in the New York Times: "If there ever was a time that we all should take a trip to the other parts of America and spend some time to get to know people there, it is now. So, who wants to come with me to Orange Beach?"