Nationwide and even internationally, thousands of travelers are waiting for American towns to polish their assets and hang "welcome" signs. They yearn for quiet and safer streets, charm and hospitality, and for music and art to resurface once again. Big cities? They've been there! Done that! Domestic and international travelers bring revenue--tourism dollars! And herein lies the timely marriage of history and economic development and heritage tourism!
Every community has the potential to create heritage tourism, but the key to success depends on 1) avoiding vulnerability and generating 2) immediate revenue while maintaining community integrity.
Vulnerability is a pitfall in the foundation of poor development and stems from promoting only seasonal attractions! Serious heritage tourism is marketed 365 days of the year attracting the more dependable group tours. The common misconception is that any spot in the road that attracts visitors is tourism, but fishing at the state park and seasonal festivals are really just sightseeing if a community's revenue from them is controlled by Mother Nature.
Solid tourism is not dependent on the weather but, rather, has the capacity to draw from the deeper-pocketed out-of-state groups. Economically this can mean the difference between a family enjoying a festival (sightseeing), spending perhaps $20 on refreshments and a group tour of 40 people (tourism) generating $2,000 to $5,440 per coach each day. Building budgets on group tourism avoids being vulnerable.
With an understanding of these two components, the fundamental guidelines of 3) authenticity and quality, 4) preservation and protection, 5) alive and interpretive, 6) community and tourism comfort and 7) collaboration can survive and create a lucrative industry for our small towns everywhere.
While authenticity and quality are essential for good heritage tourism, most people believe, incorrectly, that it takes many years before significant tourism dollars can be realized. This attitude has stifled many good intentions. Sacrificing quality is not necessary to attract immediate tourists and group tours, and our small communities must be able to generate revenue today. Three years from now is too late for many!
Historic preservation can also be vulnerable when there is a lack of protection. Our heritage and our preservation efforts require constant protection because the alternative (rampant development for sake of the dollar) can erode its very soul. Too often, a community's right hand does not know what the left hand is doing or worse, doesn't care and sees no correlation! Legal protection must be implemented, not as a control but to legally honor long-term goals for a win-win situation.
Tourist sites must do more than just come alive. Frequently we give interpretation to history without thought to creativity and originality. If tourists do not see irresistible appeal, then development has not been finished. If communities settle for a "ho-hum" approach to site development, they will find themselves saddled with the age-old attitude of dog-eat-dog competition with their neighbors. Good heritage tourism complements and cross-sells with confidence!
The "fit" between community and tourism is critical. There is a proper fit to what the tourists want and what communities are willing to give, but it extends far deeper. The satisfying fit that leads to enduring success comes from advocates and adversaries working together within the community. Some say this is impossible in some counties due to fierce inbred competition and egos! It is not impossible and it can be rewarding and progressive if the focus is on the betterment of our community and county!
Economic evolution has spurred the growth of retail giants, painting an uncertain future for the small town businesses and spawning the ruination of many historic districts. However, this has been an evolutionary result driven by our own consumer demands.
Communities are often resistant to tourism development because of false perceptions. They often fear loss of community control to the masses; damaged infrastructure by unruly visitors; and/or questionable financial gain. Misconceptions such as these usually happen in states where tourism is allowed to develop "by chance" due to lack of careful planning. Unfortunately, some state tourism directors are hired only to market existing sites, not develop underdeveloped tourism resources!
Professional collaboration should incorporate new and existing organizational efforts under the single umbrella of "tourism development. "Citizens who collaborate to increase their quality of life and attract heritage tourism at the same time are doubly rewarded.
It's prime time for a win-win situation in our small historic communities! Let's get started!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jacqueline L. Cotter-Evans is president of QUIE, Inc., a national consulting firm specializing in tourism, economic development and community revitalization.