In recent years, Harrisburg has seen a burst of new Black-owned businesses and cultural experiences, adding to the already-vibrant scene in the majority-Black city.
The area’s destination marketing organization—Visit Hershey & Harrisburg (VHH)—has now created a resource for visitors who want to learn about and patronize these restaurants, shops, cafés and venues, as well as cultural and other events.
“Larger cities across the country really are doing a great job focusing in on cultural experiences,” said Mary Smith, VHH president and CEO. “So, we feel that our region is home to many diverse tourism, businesses, and opportunities. We realize that visitors to the region, they’re demonstrating an increasing interest in learning more about these types of experiences.”
The Black Travel Experience groups opportunities together, much like VHH has done previously with its Sweet Treat Trail for confection fans, its Adventure Trail for outdoor enthusiasts, and its Brew Barons Beer Trail for suds lovers.
The Black Travel Experience seemed like a natural next step in the process.
“Travelers are more savvy,” Smith said. “They’re looking for more than just a list of places to eat or stay or play. They actually are looking to organizations like ours to paint that picture of what they can expect when they visit.”
VHH, Smith said, will help people get the most out of their visit to the area. It may also serve as an important resource for local tourists—people who live in central PA and want information on things to do.
VHH is getting the word out through the Black Travel Experience addition to its website, which offers couples and families “must do” options while highlighting Black-owned businesses, shopping, culture and events.
The site introduces visitors to places like the Nyeusi Gallery, which features art created by people of color. It also informs tourists about shops like Eddie’s Men Store and helps familiarize them with long-time Harrisburg restaurants like Crawdaddy’s and newcomers like Good Brotha’s Book Café, purveyor of coffee, sweets, lunch and books.
Café owner Stefan Hawkins likes the idea behind the initiative.
“The word doesn’t get out enough about us [Black-owned businesses],” Hawkins said. “So, amplified voices… that help us to promote and market ourselves… is very essential to growth.”
Sue Kunisky, VHH vice president of operations, concurs. She said that VHH takes the assets of the region and connects travelers to them. To do that, VHH enlisted the help of MaDonna Awotwi, director of communications at the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central PA. Awotwi assisted VHH in brainstorming, identifying and coordinating with local Black-owned businesses.
“I thought that it was an amazing idea,” Awotwi said. “I thought that it was very inclusive, for them to design a guide with a Black traveler, or people who identify with a Black experience, in mind.”
Why the need for the Black Travel Experience?
First of all, for economics.
“There’s just been so many inspiring stories coming out of Harrisburg about Black-owned businesses opening or expanding, especially in downtown and Midtown,” Smith said. “So, the timing was perfect for us to jump on this.”
Secondly, for convenience—it makes it easier for people to find what they want.
“As a Black person, when you’re traveling to a place you’ve never been before, looking for things that align with who you are, it takes a lot of research and digging on the internet to find the places you’d like to go,” Awotwi said.
And, thirdly, for cultural reasons. Hawkins believes that people should explore Black culture beyond what’s seen on television, pointing out that each city has a unique expression of the culture.
VHH and business owners hope that this initiative will drive business into the area. Hawkins would like for customers to discover his business. He also thinks that, by highlighting Black-owned businesses, others may be inspired to live their dream of business ownership.
“To take that leap of faith and bet on themselves as an entrepreneur,” Hawkins said.
Awotwi hopes, too, that locals will discover Black-owned businesses. She said that folks have their “go to” restaurants, and she would like Black-owned businesses to be on that list.
“There are some amazing Black-owned restaurants in Harrisburg that deserve to have a bright light shined on them,” Awotwi said.
She mentioned Isabelle’s Southern Cuisine on Reily Street, which serves a to-die-for salmon cheese steak. Hawkins also frequents Zachary’s BBQ & Soul for its plant-based burger.
Smith said that VHH is looking forward to building upon this initiative, by telling business stories through informational videos and continuing to add businesses as part of the experience.
Also upcoming—state investment in similar initiatives.
In December, the Wolf administration announced that it will spend $6.8 million on tourism programs that involve diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Our work on those started well before we learned anything about the state’s investment,” Smith said. “But it definitely reinforced that we’re on the right track, and that this is an important project, not only at a local level, but at a state level.”
A timely project, the Black Travel Experience gives travelers easily accessible opportunities to enjoy the region in the way they choose.
“Our goal was to be thorough, to truly bring value to both the visitor and to the businesses,” said Kunisky
Learn more about the Black Travel Experience at www.visithersheyharrisburg.org.
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