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Galveston hoping to polish image

One of the best-known but most disparaged beach towns in Texas is trying to figure out how to promote itself to outsiders while acknowledging that the town and its beaches are dirty and largely unappealing.
Residents Of Galveston Prepare For Hurricane Rita
Tommy Phelps carries a surfboard as he prepares for a final surf ahead of Hurricane Rita Sept. 22, 2005 in Galveston, Texas. Scott Olson / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the best-known but most disparaged beach towns in Texas is trying to figure out how to promote itself to outsiders while acknowledging that the town and its beaches are dirty and largely unappealing.

Residents of Galveston as well as tourists repeatedly cited "dirty beaches" and the town's "unclean feel" during recent interviews conducted by a marketing firm hired to help boost Galveston's image.

The report, commissioned by Galveston's top tourism promoters, found that while the beach is well-known, "neither visitors or residents think highly of it. Flaunt the uniqueness of your island. Your beaches and island are not dirty - they are colored with stories, history and culture."

Every summer, droves of Houstonians and other Texans stomp along Galveston's brownish-gray sand to take a summer dip in the tepid, murky Gulf waters that play host to jellyfish and strings of seaweed. Malibu it isn't, they joke, but at least it's close. But selling the town's charms to tourists with other postcard-like options might be a tough sell.

Galveston was once the crown jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast. It was first used by the pirate Jean Lafitte and others as an out-of-the-way place to dump loot while cruising the Spanish Main. A major metropolis before Houston was on any map, Galveston was largely wiped out by a hurricane in 1900 that killed thousands and ended the city's golden dreams.

Parts of the new tourism campaign by North Star Destination Strategies of Nashville, Tenn., reflect Galveston's promoters' desire to celebrate its history. The Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau already has adopted the recommended slogan: "The Legend Continues."

The city gets 6 million visitors a year. North Star found that 72 percent of them come from Houston, just 40 miles up the interstate. But the study also found that the top 10 places visitors come from include two outside Texas -- Chicago and Lake Charles, La.

Paula Brown, spokeswoman for the island's convention and visitors bureau, said the new promotional campaign, which she expects to begin in March, would focus both on Texans and on other potential visitors in cities with direct flights to Houston.

"Tourism is huge here," Brown said.

But some parts of the report stung a bit. Criticism of the island's cleanliness runs throughout the presentation, with comments about "not very pretty beaches," "remarkably seedy" neighborhoods and the town's "unpolished" reputation.

Brown said there is little sense in hiding the obvious.

"Our beaches are what they are," Brown said. "A lot of places do have white sand and clean water. Galveston doesn't. I think North Star was just saying it's no surprise that the water is not clean or very pretty, so let's focus on other things Galveston has."

Th $76,000 promotion report was commissioned by the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees, which is responsible for overseeing tourism promotion on the island. Officials plan to spend another $24,000 designing and distributing print ads and billboards promoting Galveston around the state of Texas and to targeted cities around the United States and Canada. The money comes from hotel-occupancy tax revenues in Galveston.

Promoters are eager to exploit the town's magnificent architecture and often tragic history to lure tourists, but they are are far less keen about other North Star recommendations.

The firm had recommended taking part "in a big way" in the national "Talk Like A Pirate Day" on Sept. 19, an idea at which locals and tourists alike scoffed.

The idea of having local waitresses, bellhops and police officers greeting tourists with an "Aarggh, matey!" had tourists Dustin and Katrina Thornton of Huntsville, Texas, laughing out loud.

"I think that would be kind of dumb," Dustin Thornton said.

And secretary Sharon Conley said she doubted her boss would go along with her talking like a pirate all day, although she gamely said the idea was "interesting and surely something different."

Brown said that talking like pirates for a day was probably one of those recommendations where town officials would end up smiling and turning the page. Ditto the proposal to build a huge "pirate's sandbox" in Houston filled with Galveston sand, a pirate's ship and planks to walk.

"They keep mentioning pirates," Brown said. "I think they went a little overboard on the pirates."

One recommendation that city officials rejected immediately was to change the city's name. The proposal to rename it the "City of Galveston Island" provoked such hostility that Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas felt the need to reassure residents that no such change was imminent.