by James A. Bacon
A draft plan written by PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP makes a valuable contribution to thinking realistically and creatively about Virginia tourism. The “Virginia State Tourism Plan” comes tantalizingly close to integrating the development of tourism initiatives with economic development in the Knowledge Economy… but never quite completes the loop.
Virginians have long touted the beauty of their beaches and mountains, but as PriceWaterhouseCoopers diplomatically observes, “Virginia is somewhat challenged in differentiating its experiences for nature and outdoor recreation from neighboring states with similar offerings, some of which may be well known, competitively marketed, and offered in a concentrated area.”
Virginians also pride themselves for the wealth of their historical heritage. However, the study notes tersely, history has a limited draw. “These experiences may be perceived as more passive and not necessarily exciting to potential visitors.” The historical city of Charleston, S.C., by contrast, has won recognition as one of America’s Great Adventure Towns by National Geographic.
The study makes the case for a very different kind of tourism — one not based upon giant, Disney-like destinations, which the state doesn’t have in any case, but rooted in the state’s artistic roots and modern culture.
Virginia … possesses a growing creative economy built on musical and artistic roots and combined with modern culture. From the mountain, folk, and bluegrass music to the world class art museums, galleries, and theatres, there are many opportunities to experience the cultural arts. Additionally, the 25 designated Main Street communities and other towns and cities throughout rural and urban areas, offer genuine downtown charm and unique shops, galleries, restaurants, events, and festivals that help define the artistic culture present throughout the Commonwealth.
The beauty of this focus, although PriceWaterhouseCoopers doesn’t come right out and say so, is that these types of destinations are not only potentially attractive to visitors from New York or Canada but to Virginians. Tourism can support a rich mosaic of events, venues and experiences that enhance Virginians’ quality of life — thus making the Old Dominion more competitive in recruiting and retaining the educated, affluent and innovative individuals who comprise the wealth-creating creative class.
What kind of attractions does PriceWaterhouseCoopers have in mind? The study mentions the following: town/city centers, nature & outdoor recreation, facilities for participant and spectator sports, culinary visitor experiences, and music & arts, among others
For example, Virginia has emerged as a significant wine destination, ranked as one of the top ten wine destinations worldwide in 2012 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. With more than 200 wineries, 50 breweries and distilleries and a notable wine-to-table movement, Virginia can position itself as a serious destination for high-income foodies. If Virginia became a true foody heaven, it could draw visitors not only from outside the state — as Lousiana has done marketing its Cajun culinary tradition — it could enrich the everyday experience of Virginians in a way, say, that Disney World cannot for Floridians.
Similarly, Virginia offers an abundance of waterfront along its rivers, lakes and coastlines. While taking care to protect the environment, the state and its communities should increase access to recreation activities such as fishing, boating, rafting, paddling, hiking, and shoreline biking — as well as events and festivals. By way of comparison, the study offers Governor’s Island in New York, a 172-acre island located a half mile from Manhattan and accessible by a free ferry that hosts cultural events, food festivals, concerts and performances. Such recreational assets would appeal not only to out-of-state visitors but to Virginians themselves.
A region’s competitive advantage in the Knowledge Economy comes from its ability to recruit and retain the creative class. Building assets around activities that educated, creative people like to pursue — dining, hiking, kayaking, biking, listening to music, engaging in amateur athletics — builds the base for a tourism industry and growth of the creative class.
If the state tourism plan explicitly made that connection, I believe, it would greatly strengthen the case for investing in tourism.