By Ben Rowley
With tourism growing, many rural areas are working to capitalize on humanity’s wanderlust.
Travel and tourism generates $7.6 trillion globally and $1.6 trillion for the U.S. economy, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Many small towns want a piece of the industry to bolster their economies. Visions include long-vacant buildings being repurposed into restaurants, community centers, or art galleries and surrounding scenic beauty being developed into parks, trails, river walks, fishing spots, or campsites.
Some have succeeded. As recently reported, Salida, Colorado, took the tourism plunge 30 years ago and is now enjoying the fruits of decades of effort. About 40 percent of downtown buildings were vacant in the 1990s, which was an improvement over the eighties. Today, downtown Salida has very few vacancies and is hopping with activity.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compared over 300 tourism-focused rural counties with others. The recreation counties had three times the average population growth and twice the job growth. Additional benefits included rising land prices, less poverty, higher incomes, and more economic diversification.
Even in a state with a tourism mecca like Las Vegas getting most the headlines, rural Nevada tourism is no slouch, generating $2.3 billion per year, according to the Nevada Commission on Tourism (Travel Nevada).
“All of our state parks are pretty much in the rural areas – our national park, great American history, ghost towns,” said Travel Nevada’s Public Relations Specialist Chris Moran. “There’s so much.”
Moran brings media representatives through her state on familiarization tours. They fly into Las Vegas and are taken through rural corridors like the Loneliest Road or the Great Basin Highway. She said the guests are pleasantly surprised on what there is beyond Vegas and Reno.
The trick is to convince more people to visit. State tourism agencies throughout the U.S. are encouraging rural communities to understand their own attractions and leverage them to increase visitors.
New Mexico’s Tourism Development Coordinator Suzy Lawrence said these areas don’t have a product problem, but a perception problem.
“People don’t know about our state,” she said. “They don’t know about our mountains. They don’t know about our snow. They don’t know about our forests.”
To change that, New Mexico officials studied other states that have set the bar for community outreach, including South Carolina and Oregon. From there, Lawrence and her team created New Mexico’s own program – the Rural Pathway Project. It started with a simple outreach effort where communities were invited to send in scopes of work for potential projects. As ideas rolled in, it became clear communities didn’t necessarily need an influx of money, but rather increased capacity for local leaders to create and execute their own initiatives.
“A huge check at the end of the day is not necessarily what these rural communities need,” Lawrence said. “A more beneficial approach is providing assistance in obtaining the necessary tools, resources, and support to make those wise infrastructure investment choices.”
Thus, state officials visit community stakeholders to help identify profitable product opportunities and then provide the necessary resources to develop plans focused on long-term success. What those products look like depends on community goals, according to Lawrence. Investments are made in products that bring in people who will spend money. The program, which is entering its third year, will measure success through sales receipts, traffic, website click-throughs, and social media conversions.
“My whole drive, everything that I do, is to increase the quality of life for New Mexicans by increasing revenue streams through our communities,” Lawrence said.
She enjoys seeing local leaders experience “aha” moments when they realize they are part of a major industry. Afterall, tourism is the third-largest economic driver in the state. Lawrence sees her program as a way to give a voice to the rural communities and galvanize the industry.
“The big win for us is going into these communities that are not normal tourism players and really working with the stakeholders there; really expanding our reach and introducing tourism as an industry.”
Products coming out of the Rural Pathway Project include region-wide pocket maps through New Mexico’s North East Economic Development Organization. The maps take visitors along a strategic route and showcase the historical assets in the region – the Dust Bowl, Santa Fe Trail, dinosaur digs, and Billy the Kid.
Another is in the Northern Valley, showcasing the indigenous history of the Hispanic communities in partnership with entities conducting downtown revitalization efforts in Espanola. Revitalizations include a container park with retail opportunities, stages for concerts, and a museum focusing on the lowrider culture that was originated in the region by returning World War II veterans.
Yet another example of a Rural Pathway Project is happening in Silver City, called “Stories From Our Streets.” Led by the Silver City MainStreet organization, the project invites visitors to “discover the city that was built to last” and sends them on a tour of the town’s historical buildings. Local historians, leaders, and businesses are collaborating on the project, which includes a booklet with historic details and pictures, a website featuring an interactive tour, and plaques added along the streets, indicating the historical sites.
“We learned from the New Mexico Department of Tourism that the big push now is families,” said Silver City MainStreet’s Executive Director Charmeine Wait. “Millennials are having kids, and they’re looking for activities that their entire family can do.”
Silver City’s downtown is one of the oldest in the state. It was a Wild West town with its share of violence that took place in some of the historic buildings. One downtown business owner was unaware a murder once occurred in her property.
“She wasn’t dismayed by that,” Wait said. “She thought it was pretty interesting and is excited to have a plaque go up and have this product in place and booklets available for people.”
The town’s main industry was, and continues to be, mining. Early leaders wanted a downtown that would endure, so the area is full of solid brick buildings. In the 1970s, ore prices went down and buildings were boarded up. Then, in the early eighties, grassroots efforts earned a historic designation for downtown. Now there are four historic districts in downtown Silver City.
“If you want a strong community, you need a strong downtown,” Wait said.
With the buildings standing as monuments to the city’s past, tourism’s impact on the local economy has increased.
“I’ve been here for 28 years now, and I’ve seen it truly increase since 1990,” Wait said, adding that businesses are more aware of the effort, and they’ve changed their hours to accommodate it.
Events are increasing in the area, particularly from April until October, raising visitation and revenue for businesses. Advertising goes out to places like El Paso, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces to attract their residents for a quick getaway.
“There is so much energy in the community,” Wait said. “There are so many creative people. We have several things going on every single weekend.”
For areas looking to follow suit, Wait says events are key, as well as collaboration, including organizations piggybacking off one another’s events. That way the community can offer multiple things to do in one weekend.
“If you have two events that benefit each other, don’t think of it as competition,” Wait said. “If you’re asking someone to drive three or four hours, you want to have several things happening because now you’ve made it worth it for them.”
Organizations can pool resources through cross-promotion, leveraging everyone’s email lists, websites, and social media.
“Build on the strengths that you have,” Wait said, “and don’t be competitive. And that’s really important in rural communities.”
Wait also suggested communities connect with the MainStreet programs through their states. She added that communication, from everybody, is a must.
“Even the people who are the cranky people, they have something to say, and there’s a reason they are saying it,” Wait said. “Find out.”
Whatever rural communities take on, it’s important that it’s not more than the they can chew – like throwing an event for 500 people and only have 50 beds to offer. To avoid being overwhelmed, Wait recommends starting small. Even simply raising $1,000 and painting the facades of the buildings can make a big impact.
“In the meantime, get focus groups going,” Wait said. “And collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.”
Ben Rowley is a journalist and rural business owner. Find more content at RuralBusinessHQ.com.