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Local CVB director discusses paddling, glamping and attracting visitors

Kayaking to an island of goats and donkeys and camping in an air-conditioned tent with a coffeemaker sound like exotic destination spots. But both can be found within Columbia County.

Shelly Blackburn, executive director of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the county’s destination marketing agency, spoke to a group of local real estate agents and home services professionals at a CSRA Home Connections meeting on Wednesday about those and other attractions that draw visitors to the county.

Shelly Blackburn of the Columbia County CVB speaks about what draws tourists to the area. (Photo by Josh Heath)
Columbia County is a unique kayaking and canoeing destination.

It’s an important economic venture – in 2019, Columbia County tourism generated $166 million in spending and supported 1,300 hospitality jobs.

The CVB draws on the county’s strengths, such as access to numerous outdoor experiences, to attract visitors who spend their money at area hotels, restaurants and shops.

“We are the storytellers of Columbia County,” she said.

In gathering these stories, Blackburn and her team noticed many people had kayaks and canoes on their cars, which led them to develop a major destination marketing initiative called the Serene18 Paddle Trail.

“We are a unique paddling destination,” she said.

Serene18 gives both visitors and local residents the opportunity to paddle 18 square miles of local waterways, including the Savannah River, Augusta Canal and Clarks Hill Lake.

Blackburn said each participant receives a “passport” with a map for routes leading to five destinations. One of those destinations is Stallings Island, which is home to unusual wildlife, such as goats and donkeys.

The CVB also offers tourists the opportunity to go glamping at Wildwood Park in Appling. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to glamorous camping, which is much different than “roughing it” in a tent.

“You have a bed, heat, air conditioning and a Keurig,” she said. “What else could you need?”

Glamping is available at Wildwood Park.

Blackburn also discussed how the county has become a popular destination for sporting events, such as the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics Championship Soccer tournaments held last year at Blanchard Woods Park in Evans.

These tournaments brought more than 1,000 visitors from all over the U.S. to Columbia County.

“We are really blessed here; we have great parks and recreation,” she said.

Blackburn’s discussion of capitalizing on the unique experiences Columbia County offers particularly resonated with Whitney Stevenson, loan officer with First Choice Mortgage in Augusta.

“I think it’s important for us to highlight the natural beauty our community has to offer,” Stevenson said. “As residents, we tend to forget about that, but it’s drawing people to this community.”

For more information about the CVB, go to

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