During the autumn leaf season, Asheville streets thrum with every kind of traffic imaginable. Travelers from around the world and different walks of life pack hotels and hostels. You hear the roar of tour buses, the shuffle of thousands of shoes. Sometimes, weaving through the hum, you’ll catch sight of Stu Helm, always clad in his black hoodie and black jeans, leading packs of tourists from restaurant to restaurant for Asheville Food Tours.
“I love it when you’re downtown, and you look around and see every kind of person. It makes it feel like a real city,” says Helm, who is also known for his Food Fan blog and culinary competitions. “It used to be that downtown was just a bunch of white people, but just the sheer number of people that come here has grown so much, so those numbers are going to include more racial diversity than we would see in the people that live here.”
“We’ve definitely seen an increase, particularly in the number of African-Americans,” says Jim Lauzon, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, owns and operates the big purple buses of LaZoom Tours. “It’s great, because for the longest time, it was just a bunch of white people, but we are definitely also seeing a lot of Europeans and Asians, too, now. It’s really exciting, because it just makes you feel better about where you live.”
By the numbers
Helm’s and Lauzon’s observations aside, it’s difficult to find evidence of a trend in the available numbers.
According to Statistical Atlas, which pools data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Community Survey, the national average for nonwhite residents hovers around 38 percent, while the Asheville area dips as low as 20 percent, with the metro numbers coming in at 14 percent, making Asheville one of the least diverse cities in North Carolina. In fact, Asheville is the second-whitest city in the state, with 86 percent of the metro population counted as Caucasian, topped only by Boone at 91 percent. By comparison, Charlotte has a population that is 57 percent nonwhite.
Similarly, demographic statistics assembled as part of the Longwoods International Visitor Profile for Asheville show that the diversity of Asheville’s visitors is less than that of the national average, with 90 percent of visitors identified as white in 2017 versus 83 percent nationally. Those numbers haven’t shifted appreciably over the past couple of years.
Increasing visitor diversity isn’t a strategic goal for the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the board of industry leaders that controls the expenditure of tourism occupancy tax revenues to market the area, according to Marla Tambellini, Explore Asheville’s deputy director. Projections show those revenues could top $23 million in the BCTDA’s 2019 fiscal year.
Her organization’s focus, Tambellini explains, is attracting an “experiential” customer rather than one defined by race or gender characteristics. That traveler is one “who has demonstrated an interest in experiential travel [and] displays certain psychographics that would mirror up with the kind of travel that Asheville offers,” she says.
Look and feel
What Explore Asheville has done, says Stephanie Brown, the organization’s president and CEO, is consciously increase the diversity of those it portrays in its marketing messages and materials. “The intention has always been there,” she explains, but capturing the right images to portray an inclusive, welcoming destination has lagged behind the intent. In addition to professional photography, Brown says, Explore Asheville can now draw on user-submitted content uploaded to its website for use in advertising campaigns.
“We always are very cognizant of different kinds of visitors seeing themselves in our creative,” Brown says.
Still, striking the right note remains challenging. “I don’t feel like it’s equitable to overrepresent [people of color],” she continues, “to the point where we’re not living up to that.”
A quick scan of the graphics on Explore Asheville website’s top-level pages turns up a handful of black, Latino and Asian faces floating in a sea of predominantly white crowds. According to Tambellini, for the past couple of years, “We have had content discussions around generating more content and doing work to share the African-American heritage story through our website.”
“It’s like, where’s that balance? Where it’s authentic, and you’re projecting a welcoming image?” Brown muses. “And when is it kind of like, using? But that’s the balance we try to strike.”
Authenticity can mean different things to different people. In 2015, DeWayne Barton approached several local tour companies, asking if they taught anything about local black history, a touchy subject in a city whose past includes discrimination in access to education, health care, social status and economic opportunity, in addition to outright racial violence.
As in other cities around the country, Asheville’s neighborhoods were shaped by the practice of redlining, which restricted mortgage lending in areas where racial minorities predominated. The passage of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining, but its legacy continues to be felt in Asheville and throughout the United States.
The tour companies Barton approached told him they’d include some information if he assembled it. “So I started writing up some stuff that they could share on their tour,” he explains. “But then I thought, ‘Nah, I’m just going to do it myself.’ I saw a greater mission.”
Barton went on to found Hood Huggers International, a tour company dedicated to Asheville’s African-American neighborhoods and culture. “There hasn’t been a focus on that,” he says. “Our theme is to learn from the history and to talk about what’s going on right now.”
Black labor was a driving force behind Asheville’s tourism economy from its beginnings, research by Darin Waters, UNC Asheville associate professor of history, has revealed. But then as now, a veneer of progressivism obscured the inequality of a hospitality industry that enriched African-Americans far less than their white neighbors.
“As Asheville’s economy recovered and grew during the closing decades of the 19th century, a development that was fueled by the city’s re-emergence as a popular tourist and resort area, the city’s leaders found the projection of a progressive and peaceful image economically beneficial,” Waters wrote in his 2012 doctoral thesis. “That image insured that the tourists, who were so important to the economy, would continue to find the city attractive as a place to spend their leisure time.”
Money and muscle
With its Oct. 31 approval of $1.6 million in grant funding to support projects that will increase the visibility of Asheville’s black history to both locals and visitors, the BCTDA backed a growing movement to shift how the city’s past and present are portrayed.
The projects will contribute to the ongoing revitalization of the historic African-American business area surrounding Eagle Street and establish an African-American Heritage District with interpretive trails. Funding awards include $100,000 for initial efforts to create museum exhibits at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center in the East End/Valley Street neighborhood, $800,000 for improvements to the historic YMI Cultural Center and $705,000 for the development of the LEAF Global Arts Center on Eagle Street.
Through the BCTDA’s Wayfinding Program, tourism revenues will also fund African-American District interpretive kiosks and signage. Brown and other Explore Asheville staffers hasten to emphasize a resolve to respect the previous and ongoing efforts of community members. “We’re happy to add to that process with our abilities in convening and our resources that are made possible by the TDA, but it builds upon a lot of work that’s been done by a lot of different people,” Brown told the board on Oct. 31.
“The additional support and resources provided by BCTDA [are] helpful in expediting this much-needed project that celebrates and shares the legacy and contributions of African-Americans in our community,” said Catherine Mitchell, River Front Development Group’s executive director, in a press release. “We welcome the Explore Asheville team in this collaborative effort to preserve and protect Asheville’s African-American history and culture.”
Foreign visitors also contribute to a sense of increased diversity. “Our economic impact study, which we have conducted with Tourism Economics for a few years, has seen a big bump in international tourism just this past year,” says Brown. “In the past, it was too small to even measure, but this year they estimated about 100,000 international visitors to Asheville.”
The growth in the city’s global appeal isn’t a fluke. As recently as 2012, Asheville was advertising in just four markets, but that outreach has since expanded to 15 major markets through media outlets like HGTV and the Smithsonian Channel, as well as global promotions through the U.S. Travel Association’s IPW international travel trade show.
Helm’s Asheville Food Tours sees international and Latino visitors as an untapped opportunity and has partnered with Descubre Asheville, an online Spanish-language tourism directory, to create a bilingual Spanish/English tour.
“No one has really thought about approaching this market in a bilingual form; I think it has been overlooked and underestimated,” says Descubre Asheville founder Luis Carlos Serapio, who will lead the tour. He notes that Asheville draws a lot of tourists from New York and Florida, as well as the Charlotte and Atlanta areaa, all of which have large Latino populations.
On a handful of occasions, LaZoom has hosted busloads of international college groups of non-English speakers. “They still book it just because of the nature of our slapstick comedy,” says Jennifer Lauzon, adding that LaZoom is developing a brochure in multiple languages for travelers who don’t speak English and may not understand everything that’s presented on the tour. “At least they could take a look at it while we are driving through places so it could add some more meaning to the tour,” she says.
But developing fully bilingual tours can be tricky, since LaZoom’s is a comedy tour, and a lot of jokes simply don’t translate. Even Serapio notes that he writes two separate posts on his blog — one in English, one in Spanish — since meaning can get muddled in translation.
Serapio observes that the idea of diversity is multifaceted and tricky when it’s applied to the hospitality sector. “With diversity, if you are talking about the people that are working as busboys and the people working in the kitchens? I would tell you yes. As far as tourists? Yes, that has also increased.”
But if the conversation shifts to tourism business ownership and wealth creation for local nonwhite entrepreneurs, he continues, “For that sector, it’s really hard for me to say that it is diverse, because that is not the truth.”
The average black-owned business in the Asheville area has average annual sales of just over $40,000, while the average white-owned business takes in nearly 10 times that amount, according to data presented by Dwight Mullen to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in February 2017.
In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 858 black-owned businesses in the area, compared to 26,112 owned by white entrepreneurs, Mullen, who recently retired as UNC Asheville professor of political science, told commissioners.
For his part, Hood Huggers’ Barton says, “Let’s talk about the future, and what we are going to do in the future to ensure that it’s a more diverse and inclusive city, and that value is spread all around, in all avenues of the community.”
Despite the challenges, both Barton and Serapio sound optimistic notes.
“Asheville is in a very unique position to be a model and push ahead so that people can come here and be motivated and take something they learn back to their town and make an even more powerful experience here,” says Barton. “There are enough people who try to do right here, and there’s enough need here and enough people investigating and writing all these reports about how tough it is and how good it is here. Now we just need to put some accountability in the middle of it.”
“I think we can all put a little more effort into making Asheville what we want it to be or what we seem to believe it is,” says Serapio. “If we all do our part, I believe we can make this place the most inclusive city in America. I can imagine that some people think that is far-fetched, but you have to set those kinds of goals.”