In Praise of Organic Tourism

Which would you rather have in your community.... massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale....

Which would you rather have in your community…. massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale….

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.

... or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

… or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

“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:

  1.  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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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0 responses to “In Praise of Organic Tourism

  1. That first paragraph might as well read “Don’t become Virginia Beach.” And rightly so.

    I do wonder, though, if homogeneous isn’t what people actually WANT. I am sympathetic to the arguments here, and I think preserving community character and authenticity is a a laudable end to itself, but McDonald’s didn’t make billions by letting locals operate different restaurants under a common banner.

    • Clearly there is a mass market for homogeneous experiences like Disney World, Festival Cruise Ships, and Water Country USA. That’s all fine and well. The question is this: what is the net benefit to the communities in which they reside — after deducting for all the crowds, congestion, infrastructure investment, loss of local authenticity, etc.? Should Virginia communities cater to that kind of tourism? Should they invest public and/or civic resources to promote that kind of tourism? Or should they foster “additive” tourism — tourism assets that enhance the quality of life of the community?

      Virginia Beach has geared its economy and much of its public investment to promoting mass-market tourism. I agree with you, the end result is not especially desirable, nor does it create amenities and assets that make Virginia Beach a better place for residents to live (unless you like putt-putt golf, then you’ve hit a bonanza).

      • sez the man who vacations in that cultural icon of Myrtle Beach!

        I’m no affectionato of Disney style miasma than Bacon but I do like Putt Putt golf!

      • I don’t have a copy of the article. Did he mention weekends? One trend that I’ve noticed in the past decade is the rise of “long weekends.”

        It used to be that most people took off a week during the summer and some time around the holidays. But in the last decade or so, more and more people like to spread out their leave on long weekends.

        I think a lot of these smaller places could do a better job in promoting and structuring packages for long weekend visitors.

      • I’m a little tired today so my post came out more negative than I intended. I agree with you, these are important questions. Just like it’s a waste of resources and the environment to design a mall parking lot that will only be full one Friday in November it’s equally a waste of resources to allow your locality to twist itself to service the needs of three months out of the year.

        A lot of the tension comes down to taxes, of course. Even if services and infrastructure gets sacrificed at the altar of heads and beds it at least usually carries the trade off of lower property tax. Virginia Beach has been finding the upper limits of that deal recently, though, and had to implement a garbage fee that residents weren’t too pleased with.

  2. Agree with LOTFL .. Fredericksburg works to preserve and protect it’s downtown streetscape but once away from it – it pretty much is all ears as to what someone might suggest to bring in revenues from outside.

    The huge retail footprint outside of town and adjacent to I-95 – Central Park had a significant land bay component zoned specifically for resort commercial but over the years – things have not panned out but the commercial retail has been a financial Godsend that has kept taxes down..

    but the thing is -protecting the organic tourism is not mutually exclusive to allowing and encouraging that “other ” kind which typically is much more of a cash cow…anyhow

    • The interesting issue for Fredericksburg was whether or not to subsidize the Kalahari Water Park to the tune of a several million dollars in infrastructure investment. Look, if Kalahari could have worked out a deal with the Silver Companies that didn’t require such a large public subsidy, I would say they should be able to develop their property what they please. But Fredericksburg as a community has to ask itself: Was subsidizing Kalahari Water Park offer the best possible Return on Investment?

      If I recall correctly, the City of Fredericksburg invested $2 million — and Kalahari ended up not coming. On a per capita basis, that $2 million is probably as big as the $300 million the commonwealth squandered on the U.S. 460 project. Has anyone paid attention? Does anyone care?

      • I do not think they put 2 million into it up front – but I would stand to corrected.. Fredericksburg has a history of NOT putting money up front to lose.

        the theory behind Kalahari – as well as the Slave Museum and baseball stadium (as well as the now-built convention center) was the same.

        people would come from out of the area and spend gobs of money on motels and restaurants – as well as visiting downtown Fredericksburg and the .. devil always was and still is in the “projection” details.

        Now what the proponents will ask you is what do you have there right now that benefits ? It’s pretty skinny – a summer concert series and – significantly – a rezone from resort commercial to multi-unit residential.

        … as well as significant tax delinquencies of properties bought for investments for spin-off to whatever main Kalahari-type anchor would be there.

        however – in this blog – on more than a few occasions – we play the govt-redevelopment, incentives, TIF game – depending on what the proposal is.

        right?

  3. Used to work with Ed… Forwarded him your post. To Lifeon, Ed was actually implementable in getting McDonald’s to construct their Shockoe Bottom location as two story and brick. In short, the Richmond Planner called Ed. McDonny’s had the right to develop a traditional store under zoning. Ed discovered that the zoning didn’t provide for a drive thru which was the city’s negotiating chip.

  4. >>Mass market-tourism is all about putting “heads in beds.” It is high volume, high impact but low yield.>>

    To me, the most salient point is the implied (?) distinction made between marketing and product. In another context, my church fails to make that same distinction: “We have to get more people into the church” I’m for that, but I get blank stares when I ask the question, “What are we selling?”

    Just another hand grenade from the CrazyJD

  5. I’m proud to say I haven’t spent a vacation dime in Virginia in more than 10 years. Until the frickin General Assembly passes a law allowing Fairfax County Public Schools to set its own starting day, I vowed not to vacation in Virginia. And I haven’t. The biggest roadblock Dick Saslaw.

  6. There are some towns where the big tourist draw is the local truck stop 50 miles from anywhere else.

    As an astute observer, I would say that more tourists visit Water Country than the high brow history site down at Jamestown. Or the Virginia Sports museum.

    When it comes to tourists, the only thing that is important is max heads in beds. This is true whether it’s DC or Corn Palace, South Dakota.

    • probably a different view as to the “purpose” of “tourism” I suspect.

      probably akin to the difference between ordinary hot dogs and gourmet dogs…

      or some such…

      😉

    • Nope. When it comes to tourists, there’s more to it.

      How much per visitor are these people spending?
      How are they spending it?
      Who benefits?
      What are the costs, both direct and incidental?
      How does it impact quality of life for year round residents?

      The hotelier may only care about maximizing heads in beds. The overall community is going to care about cost/benefit. These are not the same thing, and policies maximizing benefit to the community as a whole may not necessarily be the same policies that maximizes benefit to the owner of the local Motel 6.

      • Most places are interested in tourism as a tax generator … and not particularly discriminatory about the kind and type… as long as it performs.

        yes, there are infrastructure and services costs.. and they’ll often make that part of the calculation but what they also make part of the calculation is what KIND of tourism and it’s potential for generating tax revenues.

        that’s the perspective of those not actually engaged in the tourism itself.

        some tourism is for-profit – and that’s their goal.

        other tourism is .. say like the Park Service who while they tout the tourism aspect to localities – have a different core mission and as such – they are very restrictive as to what they will allow or not on their property.

        make no mistake though – even the Park Service and major Museums have “gift shops” that typically do a good business and they use those proceeds to help fund their core mission.

        • The type of tourism matters, though.

          If you’re Faquier County and promoting wine and horse venues, letting people do too much ticky tacky is likely to decrease, not increase, your overall revenues.

          As Jim pointed out, the type of mass tourism that attracts six to a room, buy your own groceries and beer, have your own parties on the beach is lot more disruptive, and a lot less lucrative, than some other forms of tourism.

          You have to consider crime rate, infrastructure to move these people around, annoyance factor and crowding out other businesses, etc.

          In general, communities with a big focus on mass tourism tend to be less attractive for other forms of business. You get more crime, the jobs created tend to be ill paying and low end, much higher demand for social services and policing, and it disrupts everyday life for residents.

          Day trip tourism and what Jim is calling organic tourism tends to be good for communities. Mass tourism is generally not beneficial to the overall community. If governments focused more on improving the overall business climate and less on get rich quick schemes, they’d see bigger payoffs.

          • I’m not disagreeing.. but I’m also pointing out that people own land and will develop it … according to ROI for them and if that means ticky-tacky – putting food on the table is a powerful motivator.

            the problem with ticky tacky is that it’s often in the eye of the beholder – and the very folks who say they hate govt regulation – will seek to have to govt restrict private property owners attempts to create a thriving business that … looks like crap…

            we’re in middle of a long drawn out knock-down back and forth up our way – over digital signs.. the kinds that do everything Las Vegas signs do – and more and the battle lines are drawn.

            businesses want them and say they bring them business. Others are opposed to the ticky tacky – and guess who is called into referee? that’s right – big, bad, nasty govt.

          • virginiagal2

            You need to be consistent – and that’s generally accomplished with zoning.

            A lot of ticky tacky is, directly or indirectly, subsidized. If you don’t want it, not subsidizing it is generally a start.

          • but just to be clear – perceiving you to be an entrepreneurial type who has previously expressed distaste for govt regulation.. in zoning you do support the govt determining and regulating – what entrepreneurial efforts should “look” like?

            but do we really directly support and subsidize kitsch or does it just slide in beside other retail that also benefits from subsidized infrastructure and services?

            In other words – are we selecting out – the kind of development that is unworthy of the same subsidies we provide to other development that we don’t find as obnoxious?

    • Corn Palace! I was kind of let down by the Corn Palace, man. Although, Wall Drug never disappoints.

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