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Time to tighten up on tour companies? 

AS PUBLISHED IN THE SAVANNAHIAN

25 MAR 2024 • 7 MIN READ 

By Brian Myers | Photos by Van Bruckner 


TRAVELING DOWNTOWN means seeing throngs of tour companies on full display. Whether it’s a solo tour guide leading a pack of people on foot through the squares and quaint streets or a rambling bus packed with visitors being taught the city’s history through a megaphone, these businesses work all hours of the day and into the evenings. 

The tours range from ones dedicated to the city’s alleged haunted sites to ones that are based strictly on Savannah’s history and landmarks. The tour companies make up a chunk of the more than $4 billion that visitors spend in Savannah annually, from the 17 million people that come into the city. 

As tourism continues to grow in Savannah year over year, the business from tour companies has kept apace. But how they are received by locals has been a mixed bag of opinions. While some value the dollars they bring into the community, others view them as problematic. 


Living in Savannah means making adjustments to how these growing numbers of tourists shape the neighborhoods during their hours of operation, for certain. But a path for a peaceful coexistence between the tour companies and the residents that live along tour company routes is a bit of a rocky one. 


Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) President David McDonald lent his perspective to The Savannahian in a March 8 interview that echoes the concerns of many of the 800+ members. 


He alleges that many of the tour companies in Savannah are not complying with local ordinances, with violations that range from excessive noise that disturbs the peace of neighborhood residents to pedestrian groups blocking sidewalks, porches, and driveways. 

To-go cups left behind for residents to pick up from their yards and stoops have also been an issue, though McDonald says the bulk of the complaints that DNA members have lodged stem from the basic lack of awareness of the tourists and the blatant disregard for the City code committed by various tour companies. 


But McDonald wants to make it clear that neither he, nor the organization that he leads, wants the tours to stop. 


“We’re not here to put anyone out of business,” he stated, before pointing out that some of the members of the DNA own and operate their own tour companies. “We’re not out to hurt our own members, either.” 


McDonald’s position is that a combination of outdated City codes and a lack of enforcement of current codes have created a situation where many of the tour companies are allowed to operate outside of local law, to the detriment of the residents downtown. 


He and other DNA members have photographed and video recorded tours that exceed their customer limits, as well as operate past legal times in certain parts of the downtown. 

When asked if revision of the current code is necessary, McDonald answered in the affirmative, but reiterated that any modifications would be moot if they are not enforced by the City. 


“Compliance doesn’t work because the City is severely understaffed,” he claimed, noting that there isn’t anyone to contact during the evening hours when a tour group is in clear violation of the law. 


And while he does acknowledge that Cynthia Knight, head of code enforcement, does a great job at managing what she has available, there just aren’t enough City resources dedicated to tackling the problem immediately when violations occur. 


McDonald also made it a point to say that he has reached out to multiple tour companies to work on a solution together, but hasn’t received any takers. 


“I think we can all work together,” he maintained, “and come up with a solution.” 

“How do we keep the noise down?” McDonald asks, before offering his own solution. He points out that many cities have laws that require their tour companies to use in-ear devices for their customers, eliminating the need for a tour guide to raise their voice over a crowd. 

He also says that inward-directed speakers on board trolleys go a long way in reducing noise, especially during later hours. 


After putting a camera up in one spot downtown, McDonald claims that the DNA was able to capture one of these lumbering vehicles driving by every four minutes. 


But if compromises aren’t met, the DNA are prepared to present their findings to City of Savannah leadership. 


Last month, members were encouraged to log violations of local ordinances committed by tour companies, by using their cellphone cameras and a log book. 


McDonald says he told his membership that “anecdotal evidence does no good. But how do you argue against proof on video or photos?” 


One tour company owner, Chris Grimmett of Live Oak Historic Tours, sees where some of the complaints lodged by the DNA are coming from. Grimmett, who began his popular tour company in 2012, believes that much of the noise complaints stem from late-night ghost tours that routinely pack 30 (or allegedly more) visitors into a group and walk through the neighborhoods. 


Grimmett limits his capacity at 12, as any more than that, in his words, “diminishes the quality of the tours.” His history tours are conducted during the day, and take customers along a one-mile route for anywhere between one hour and 90 minutes. 


He admits that his approach, along with many of the ones his colleagues in the industry have adopted, are a stark contrast to the bigger companies. 


When asked about whether or not the current code is applied by City staff, Grimmett says that for the most part what he’s seen has been workable, but only to a certain extent. 

From his perspective, the staffing could use some adjustments from the City’s end, and he believes that if this is done, many of the issues facing residents along the nighttime tour routes could be largely eliminated. 


As the maximum capacity for walking tours sits at 30 customers, Grimmet asserts that the need for in-ear devices can be eliminated if the capacity were lessened. While he acknowledges that this means less money for the big companies per tour, he points out that biggest offenders of the noise ordinances and other violations alleged by the DNA are the larger outfits that are raking in the most money. 


Grimmet is also sympathetic for the residents who have complained about the noise late at night, as he’s personally witnessed large groups of intoxicated tourists shouting in front of homes and in some cases even sitting on the front stoops. Grimmet says this is behavior that could be better managed by the tour company owners and their tour guides. 


But he also points out that anyone who moves into a popular tourist destination should certainly be mindful that people, whether on tours or not, will be coming by your home to sightsee whether you want them to or not. 


And while he doesn’t excuse the sometimes loud and disruptive behaviors by some of those on the tours, he certainly wants to impress on people that historically significant homes in a growing city are going to get a good amount of foot traffic in front of them. 


But how far is too far? One local tour company informed The Savannahian that a City employee arrived at a local square and began taking photos of a large group of middle school tourists, who had yet to be broken up into smaller groups to begin their tours. Not to mention that the City leadership doesn’t necessarily have the best track record when it comes to regulating the industry locally to begin with. 


A federal lawsuit filed in 2014 (Old Town Trolley Tours of Savannah, Inc. vs. the Mayor and Alderman of the City of Savannah) forced the City of Savannah to make some changes to the laws they had previously adopted for tour companies after being found in several violations of the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the suit cost taxpayers millions of dollars. 


Clearly, there is an issue that needs to be addressed by local officials. The Savannahian has seen firsthand over the last two weeks instances where late night tours have indeed obstructed sidewalks, impeding the passage of this article’s writer to the point where they had to walk into the street to get around. 


On multiple occasions, the writer of this article has also seen tours that have exceeded the City’s maximum capacity of 30 customers, with one tour group having 36 individuals on a late night ghost tour. 


To be fair, out of the scores of tour companies that take tourists through Savannah’s downtown and charming neighborhoods, it seems as though a small percent of them are in violation of any part of the code. Those who conduct their tours responsibly, as Grimmett notes, aren’t going to be negatively impacted by enforcement. 


But any whiff of potential changes to the existing code sends off alarm bells for some tour companies, who well remember the days of the former “Tour Guide Licensing Ordinance,” in which tour companies were forced to pay a preservation fee per customer, sit for and pass a history exam, and pass a physical before a license was issued for business. 


The consideration for new regulations certainly doesn't sit well for one tour company owner. The anonymous source stated in an email to The Savannahian that conducting business was difficult enough, and that stricter regulations regarding tour size only punishes the law-abiding tour groups instead of focusing on the few bad apples. 


This is a point to be considered. If the City of Savannah isn’t able to adequately enforce what is on their books, tightening up tour company regulations will only make those who already obey the laws suffer. Those who shirk the rules will continue to do so, unless the City really steps up enforcement. 


But would further revisions of the code alleviate the noise and congestion issues that are evident with some of the tour companies? Perhaps. 


In-ear devices and inward directed speakers in vehicles are the standard in other cities, helping to keep the noise to lower levels. But perhaps Grimmett is onto something when he suggests a smaller cap for the number of people allowed on a walking tour. 


One thing is evident. No part of code, whether its current or a future revision, is worth the paper it’s been printed on if the City doesn’t have the capacity or the will to enforce it. 


When asked for comment about the DNA’s accusations that the current code isn’t being adequately enforced by City of Savannah employees, neither Mayor Van Johnson nor District 2 Alderman Detric Leggett responded for comment 

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