by James A. Bacon
Promoting tourism is a major part of Virginia’s economic development strategy for good reason. Tourism supports jobs, expands the tax base and helps pay for amenities — restaurants, arts, cultural institutions — that can be enjoyed by the whole community. But it can create problems, too, such as crowding, traffic congestion, noise and tacky, haphazard development. Handled poorly, tourism actually can degrade a community’s quality of life.
It is critical to differentiate between mass-market tourism and what Edward T. McMahon, writing in the May issue of Virginia Town & City, calls “responsible” tourism. Mass market-tourism is all about putting “heads in beds.” It is high volume, high impact but low yield. Think Fort Lauderdale, the “spring break capital” of the United States, which attracted millions of college kids who slept six to a room and spent money on little but beer and t-shirts.
“Mass market tourism is … about environments that are artificial, homogenized, generic and formulaic,” writes McMahon. By contrast, “responsible tourism is about quality. Its focus is places that are authentic, specialized, unique and homegrown. … Think about unspoiled scenery, locally owned businesses, historic small towns and walkable urban neighborhoods.”
The challenge for Virginians, suggests McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, is to promote tourism without losing our soul. There is more to building a tourism industry than spending marketing dollars to lure visitors. It involves making destinations more appealing. “This means identifying, preserving and enhancing a community’s natural and cultural assets, in other words protecting its heritage and environment.”
Tourism that arises organically from the history, culture, architecture and natural assets of a community, I would argue further, make our communities more desirable places to live. They improve the quality of life and economic opportunity in ways that transcend the tourism sector. In effect, they become magnets for human capital.
McMahon proffers nine recommendations:
- Preserve historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes. McMahon quotes travel writer Arthur Frommer: “Among cities with no particular recreational appeal, those that have preserved their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t receive almost no tourism at all. Tourism simply won’t go to a city or town that has lost its soul.”
- Focus on the authentic. “Communities should make every effort to preserve the authentic aspects of local heritage and culture, including food, art, music, handicrafts, architecture, landscape and traditions. responsible tourism emphasizes the real over the artificial. It recognizes that the true story of a place is worth telling, even if it is painful or disturbing.”
- Ensure that hotels and restaurants and compatible with their surroundings. “Tourists need places to eat and sleep. Wherever they go, they crave the integrity of place. Homogenous, “off the shelf” corporate chain and franchise architecture works against the integrity of place and reduces a community’s appeal as a tourist destination.”
- Make your story come alive. “Visitors want information about what they are seeing, and interpretation can be a powerful storytelling tool that can make an exhibit, an attraction and a community come alive.”
- Protect community gateways: control outdoor signage. “Protecting scenic views and vistas, planing street trees, landscaping parking lots all make economic sense, but controlling outdoor signs is probably the most important step a community can take to make an immediate visible improvement in its physical environment. Almost nothing will destroy the distinctive character of a community faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards.”
- Enhance the journey as well as the destination. Getting there can be half the fun. Encourage the development of heritage corridors, bike paths, rail trails, greenways and scenic byways.
- Get them out of the car. If you design a community around cars, you’ll get more cars, but if you design a community around people, you’ll get more pedestrians. It is hard to spend money while you are in a car.”
- Create a “trail” with neighboring communities. “Few rural communities can successfully attract out-of-state or international visitors on their own, but linked with other communities, they can become a coherent an powerful attraction.” McMahon points to the example of Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which promotes nine presidential homes, numerous Civil War sites, more than 30 historic Main Streets and other historical and natural attractions.
- Ask yourself, “How many tourists are too many?” “Tourism development that exceeds the carrying carrying capacity of an ecosystem or that fails to respect a community’s sense of place will result in resentment by local residents and the eventual destruction of the very attributes that attracted tourists in the first place. Too many cars, tour buses, condominiums or people can overwhelm a community and harm fragile resources.”
This is an excellent list. I would add only one important observation, as a corollary to “get them out of the car.” The way to get people out of the car is to create places where they can walk, bike or take mass transit. From Manhattan to San Francisco, Barcelona to London, people love spending time in places where they can immerse themselves in history, culture and architecture in a walkable setting. It is those very same characteristics that make those places among the most desirable in the world to live and do business.
Virginia does a creditable job at building organic tourism. McMahon points out wonderful instances from the Virginia Creeper Trail to the Richmond Slave Trail, from dancing to bluegrass music at the Floyd Country Store to the Hampton Inn chain’s conversion of the old Co. Alto Mansion into a 76-room hotel near historic downtown Lexington. The article is a “must read.” McMahon has contributed the freshest, most original thinking about economic development in Virginia that I have seen this year.There are currently no comments highlighted.