Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Emerging Ideas in Community Tourism Planning

This is the first in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.
Community Tourism Planning in Hood River, Oregon, has benefited downtown through increased economic activity
As we are arriving at a tourism or vacation travel destination, what often goes by in a blur, at first, is the community that surrounds it.  Other times, unique neighborhoods themselves are the destination, and we’re alert to every nuance.
In either case, we eventually leave with lasting impressions, whether we realize it or not, that are rooted in the relationship between the attraction and the supporting community.  Did we feel welcomed as visitors?  Were the residents and the area benefitting broadly from tourism, or was all the business captured by a single attraction?  Did we feel exploited by a “tourist trap”, or did we go unnoticed, our getaway about being able to pretend for a little while that we lived there ourselves?  How do we feel about tourists in our own town?
Increasingly, attention is being paid to the relationship between the community and its tourism industry.  Community Tourism Planning is a planning approach that recognizes the contributions of the host community:

  • Local residents are the owners, operators, and workers of the tourism base.
  • Communities are the source of the culture or character that attracts visitors, the “flavor”.
  • More than ever, residents are literally the hosts, using Airbnb or other means of private short term rental to physically host visitors in their own homes.

Therefore, Community Tourism Planning, or Community Tourism Development, encourages greater input and determination from a community in the strategic planning of local and regional tourism, in order to:
  • Ensure that tourism plans are aligned with overall community values and goals. 
  • Create a collaborative partnership between residents, businesses, resources, and planning authorities.
  • Work with communities to balance the positive and negative effects of tourism
  • Ensure that the whole community is the ultimate beneficiary of sustainable tourism activity.

Municipal governments, visitors bureaus, and tourism development groups find that communities involved in planning remain active participants and are also supportive of initiatives, regulations, or changes to policy needed to pursue the collective mission.  As tourism becomes more diverse in its offerings, spread out geographically, and democratized by attractions and visitors interacting on social media, community tourism planning will be a way for planning authorities to continue to provide leadership and coordinate their goals.
The University of Minnesota Extension has created a community tourism development project that publishes resource material articulating guidance particularly well.
In many ways, the process is similar to other kinds of cultural or business development assessment and planning.  The quality of community engagement is the key factor to success.

Inventory – The Community Identifies its Tourism Assets

Hood River Fruit Loop Map
The Hood River Valley of Oregon has long been a center of apple, pear, and cherry farming.  It is also situated in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.  When the area’s agribusiness base began to fade in the 1990s, communities focused on what they felt were their two most valuable assets:  local food products and scenic environs.  From this inventory, Hood River County growers associations and state development grants created a wildly successful agritourism zone known as The Fruit Loop.  The Fruit Loop is now a 35 mile road route guiding visitors to farms, farm stands, and wineries of the Columbia River Gorge.  The Hood River Chamber of Commerce Visitor Council publishes maps and coordinates a calendar of events to bring tourists to harvest and blossom festivals year-round.  In 2014, approximately 125,000 visitors spent almost $88 million dollars in this rural county.  The Fruit Loop has become a model for inclusive and sustainable food tourism because its development is anchored in what the community believes it does best (http://hoodriverfruitloop.com/)
Mt. View's Fruit Stand, open each harvest season from July through November, is the not-so-hidden treasure of the Hood River County Fruit Loop 

Participants - Harness Community Initiative and Identity

Washington D.C.’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails are official walking tours of the District’s historic neighborhoods, illuminated with historical markers, signs, photographs, and audio tour guides.  Cultural Tourism DC is the nonprofit group that coordinates the funding and technical assistance to implement the tour routes – but the historic themes, research, and planning are articulated and conducted by the neighborhoods themselves.  Prospective communities submit proposals for routes and points of interest.  If selected by Cultural Tourism DC’s committee, they receive funding to organize and conduct their own historical research and receive guidance in assessing and developing the neighborhood’s capacity to support a permanent tour offering (transportation, available public restrooms, businesses on the route are informed and can answer questions).  Enticing visitors to explore, eat, and shop “beyond the monuments”, the tours become economic boons to neighborhoods further away from D.C.’s most iconic landmarks.  But the benefits also go beyond financial.  Supporting communities in their own heritage tourism development stimulates a conversation, taps the knowledge and memory of life-long residents, and fosters a sense of neighborhood identity.  The program now boasts 17 distinct heritage trails on historic themes from art history to civil rights (http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/neighborhood-heritage-trails).

Knowledge partner case studies of developing neighborhood cultural tourism include:
Future posts in this series will take a closer look at issues related to community tourism planning. 
Community Based Tourism:  CBT is a tourism development model that relies entirely on the host residents and resources where little or no tourism infrastructure or authority exists.  At the moment, this kind of thinking is applied to very poor or isolated communities possessing a unique attraction, like a village in Tanzania that hosts wildlife tours.  Couldn’t these same principles be applied to any locale here in the U.S. with a natural or cultural attraction, but few resources to develop them?
Airbnb as economic development plan:  Platforms that facilitate short term rental make any property owner a participant in their local tourism industry.  Municipal governments across the country are responding largely with regulations and restrictions on private short term rentals.  Is there a municipality doing the opposite – embracing, supporting, or even helping coordinate short term rental as part of economic and tourism development?
These and other stories from where the rubber meets the road, or the comfortable street shoe meets the walking tour. 
joe bly

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