St. Augustine has been on my radar for years. The oldest European settlement in America, Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, wasn't on the front burner, though, until the city's tourism officials announced that St. Augustine is celebrating its 450th anniversary this year.
And just like that, St. Augustine was at the front of the line.
Anniversaries can have that effect. They're important. They're out of the ordinary. They provide a sense of history, a link to the past, an appreciation of our roots.
But most of all, they provide a deadline. Unlike annual events in a destination, a major milestone anniversary — measured in decades or centuries — is a rare opportunity. In the United States, a 450th anniversary is scarcer than fountains of youth.
Anniversaries are a call to action, attracting history buffs, culture seekers and travelers looking for special experiences. And they've become one of the most popular marketing tools for promoting a destination and upgrading its image.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, for instance, was embraced everywhere from the Canadian province of New Brunswick to Ireland and London. The recent 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination was a cause for special events not only in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Ill., but in Buffalo, N.Y., which commemorated the April 27, 1865, arrival of the president's funeral train. It's just the latest milestone remembered as part of the Civil War sesquicentennial, which has taken place over so many years and in so many battlefields that we're getting used to all those re-enactment spectacles. The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the Reformation has expanded to the Luther Decade, 10 years of events and programs in the central region of Germany known as Luther Land.
These types of big blowouts not only attract visitors to the actual event, but the publicity before or during the event may capture travelers' imagination and influence them to travel at a later date. Plus, major events often require new tourist attractions and infrastructure that will be a draw once an event is over.
An anniversary is a chance to be in the spotlight. And destinations want to be ready for their close-ups.
St. Augustine has spent $3.6 million since 2009 renovating historic buildings, creating new exhibitions, organizing events and designing specially branded promotions in preparation for the 450th. Already, there are tall ships in the harbor and new sights in town, but the big event is Sept. 4-8 — Capt. Pedro Menendez and his crew arrived onshore on Sept. 4, 1565.
The first Europeans to set foot in what is now the United States were the Spanish explorers who arrived in St. Augustine. The first free community of former slaves, founded in 1738 and called Fort Mose, was established more than a century before the Emancipation Proclamation — in St. Augustine.
St. Augustine has been reconnecting in recent years with its Spanish heritage, including Spanish wines. For the past five years there has been a Spanish wine festival, with a battle of the wines. Teams, dressed all in white, shoot each other with water blasters loaded with wine. The team whose players have the most white left on their clothing after 10 minutes wins.
Excuse me while I go pack.