The history of the United States did not begin in the 17th century with the English or with the declaration of independence of 1776. Long before, in 1513, Juan Ponce de León had already discovered Florida. In 1559, an expedition commanded by Tristán de Luna established a provisional settlement in what is now Pensacola and in 1565 the Asturian Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded what is still the oldest city in the country, San Agustín.
Today, the old flag of the cross of Burgundy carried by the Spanish conquerors continues to fly proudly in the castle of San Marcos de San Agustín, whose streets abound with names such as Aviles, Seville, Malaga or Saragossa, and every step one comes across establishments such as Casa Rodríguez, Spanish Bakery or Casa de los Gallegos.
San Agustín are taking advantage of the "Spain brand". In the last year, 7.5 million people have visited this town, 500 kilometers north of Miami, largely attracted by the hook of the Spanish legacy.
Although the figure is only part of the more than 89 million tourists who set foot in Florida in 2012, this new history-based tourism is a clearly growing business, as a cultural and quality alternative to the beaches, good weather and Orlando theme parks.
This year the "Colonial Quarter" has opened its doors, a large open-air museum on the rich colonial history of Florida, a period dominated by the Spanish except for a brief British parenthesis. Its owner, Pat Croce, a Philadelphia entrepreneur in love with history, is convinced that he will return the three million dollars invested and, in fact, in the first months he has already received thousands of visitors. "I want to make this the version of Williamsburg in St. Augustine," he says in reference to the ancient capital of Virginia, a true reference of historical tourism in the US, which every year millions of visitors come attracted by their recreations of the colonial period.
In the "Colonial Quarter" you can go from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, and then to the eighteenth century and enter the house of a Spanish soldier, an old blacksmith shop or, of course, a "tavern", called "del Caballo", where Replenish forces. "American history began here, not in Philadelphia!" Exclaims Croce.
«The business has grown»
The "Colonial Quarter" is just a sample of the growth that San Agustín experiences thanks to its Spanish past. In the commercial street St. George, businesses have grown 40% in one year. Tim Fritts, in front of a clothing and footwear store, confirms this bonanza. "The business has grown" and, he says, many people come not only from the United States, but also Cubans or Mexicans in search of the Hispanic footprint, as well as Europeans, from Spaniards to Germans, French or Russians.
Such is the "boom" that the city council already plans to recover two other parallel streets to triple the space dedicated to this type of historical tourism, thus creating a large urban area with the Spanish footprint as the main hallmark. And that the mayor, Democrat Joe Boles, says he does not want a large influx of tourists to massify the city and end up killing the hen of golden eggs. "We don't want too many visitors that exceed our capacity," he says. The important thing, he explains, is that the tourist who goes tracking the Spanish footprints is a more qualified visitor who leaves more money than the one who is going to bathe on the beaches and drink some beers. It is about capturing a tourist who, in addition to the Orlando amusement parks (just a few hours away), seeks something else that enriches them. And that is the plus quality that Spanish history brings.
«It is a magnificent business opportunity. People from this great country and the rest of the world come to learn things, to live experiences, but in addition to entertainment, we give them an enrichment, ”confirms Richard Goldman, executive director of the Office of Tourism and Conventions of the so-called Historic Coast of Florida.
The pull of this "boom" of historical tourism is not limited to San Agustín, but reaches other points where the Spaniards left their mark. Pensacola, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, is another good example. This city offers a tour of its historic neighborhood, in which guides dressed as in the colonial era show what life was like centuries ago in houses where red-black flags hang. As in San Agustín, there are also streets here with Spanish names, such as Seville or Palafox. Also here the fifth centenary of the discovery of Florida is a business opportunity.