Civic Tourism, and the Importance of Place

8 minute read

June 21, 2010, 5:00 AM PDT

By Dan Shilling

Most tourism advocates support the industry because it spurs economic development, but their decisions often destroy the very characteristics of place that make the place attractive. Dan Shilling argues that tourism should be an enabler of healthy place-making, not only an economic tool. 

I often say civic tourism begins with the story of your place. Of course, more than a few other travel and tourism programs say something similar, among them cultural tourism, heritage tourism, agritourism, ecotourism, geotourism, and a handful of other approaches to place-based hospitality that have recently emerged. Don't get me wrong – people have always traveled to experience scenery and culture, but it's only been within the last few years that we've seen books, university courses, consultants, and hospitality bureaus advocating one or another form of place-based tourism. The granddaddy of them all, "ecotourism," was only coined in 1983, so this is still new stuff, we're still learning how to do it, and we shouldn't be disillusioned by the occasional setback.

Photo: a cowboy cutout lassos a sign that reads Welcome to Old Town Scottsdale.
Image courtesy of Experience Scottsdale.

In the early 1990s, when I was director of the Arizona Humanities Council, we began to dabble in cultural heritage tourism, and all of the research seemed to bolster our belief that it was a good idea in a state whose tourism was largely defined by our magnificent natural and cultural landscapes. Years of studies clearly showed that if we invested in Arizona's cultural infrastructure, this new breed of traveler – often Boomers looking for unique experiences – would stay longer and spend more. It seemed like a win-win idea that served both the cultural and business sectors, and I was among its loudest cheerleaders.

So, what happened? What went wrong?

By "wrong" I don't mean there aren't fantastic place-based tourism projects across the nation. There are – from heritage tours in Harlem to heritage trails in Arizona. However, most of these are isolated and episodic projects dependent on the hard work and vision of a few dedicated individuals, rather than a cog in the wheel of an ongoing state or regional initiative, which is the possibility some of us imagined.

By "wrong" I mean: If place-based tourism is so commonsense and potentially beneficial; if, as economic guru Richard Florida says, "Place is becoming the central organizing unit of our economy and society," then why is "place" disappearing from so many communities? Anyone who's studied Tourism 101 knows differentiation is the key, so why are many tourism towns starting to resemble James Howard Kunstler's "geography of nowhere," where standardization has replaced uniqueness? And why are tourism bureaus often managed by the same growth machines responsible for the standardization, such as chambers of commerce? If your town's tourism product is its historic downtown streetscape, why isn't the tourism program directed by the historical society or preservation association?

By "wrong" I also mean: If sense of place is so important to tourism specifically, and economic development in general, why are the organizations that identify, preserve, and enhance place so under-funded – or even being abolished? Across the country, arts agencies, preservation groups, historical societies, heritage centers, and similar guardians of place have seen their budgets slashed and their political standing undercut. Sure, there are wonderful exceptions, but one wishes they were the norm; for the most part, federal and state budget crises have been used as excuses to purge too many cultural, educational, and environmental agencies. Tourism budgets have not faired much better.

In my own state, the governor's proposed budget for 2010 phased out the Arizona Historical Society over five years, an agency that has existed since 1864, nearly a half century older than the state itself. Like many other regions, Arizona's tourism is dependent on its history and heritage; just look at any magazine ad or website: cowboys, Native Americans, Hispanic culture. And while the governor's plans were thankfully thwarted, at least for now, it's distressing to think that the one statewide institution responsible for archiving and telling our stories was nearly eliminated, two years before Arizona celebrates its centennial in 2012. One wonders where or how that celebration would take place. Sadly, our story is not unique.

So what went wrong, or at least not remarkably right, given the potential? If place is so important why is it disappearing, along with the organizations responsible for its preservation? One reason, I'd argue, is that we've done a good job with the research but not with implementation. That's why we refer to civic tourism as "the poetry and politics of place." Most of us know what the poetry is: our place's history, its environment, its heritage, the things that make our story special. Politically, however, we've dropped the ball, in part because place-based tourism advocates have limited the conversation to the two most likely audiences: the tourism industry and the cultural sector. We've not successfully engaged the people who often know more about, and care more about, their place than any other group: the general public. Simply put, we need to become better grassroots activists, which should not be difficult, given that we're talking about the places where people live, not an abstract political equation.

In 2004, when we began the research that resulted in civic tourism, we asked residents what they knew about the tourism industry in their town. Not surprisingly, very few people know who is responsible for product development, funding, marketing, and other roles. If they have impressions at all, most citizens consider tourism a low-wage industry run by the chamber of commerce. Tourism means motels, gift shops, and fast food outlets – all aimed at satisfying strangers. When I asked tourism bureau directors how this situation benefits them, suggesting they might want to reach out to residents, I was surprised that some said they didn't want locals anywhere near the tourism conversation, because all they would do is gripe.

Well, maybe they have reason. Visit your nearest "tourist trap" and ask anyone who's lived there ten years what they think of the hospitality industry – and step back, because you'll get an earful! How can it be healthy for tourism agencies, which usually depend on public funds, to alienate and keep at arm's length their neighbors – the people who are often the most affected by the industry's decisions? Civic tourism flips the frame, privileging the needs of residents, not visitors; asking how we can use the industry to enhance the things people love about their place, rather than how we can use place to increase the industry's bottom line.

Admittedly, other approaches to place-based tourism advocate community involvement. Open any book about cultural or ecotourism, for example, and you'll probably read something like: "No tourism product should be developed or marketed without the involvement and support of the local residents" (David Edgell, Managing Sustainable Tourism). Great, it's good to see that sentiment making inroads. But it's one thing to say "involve the public" and quite another to do it, which we discovered during many community forums.

Predictably at these meetings, pro-tourism cheerleaders explain that the industry provides jobs, generates taxes that pay for much-needed services, and attracts restaurants and other amenities, which residents would otherwise not have. On the other side of the room, the anti-tourism voices complain that tourism ruined their town, causes crime and congestion, and, besides, you can keep your fancy restaurants – we never eat there anyway!

That's the missing part: How do we have a dialog about tourism and not a debate? How do we identify common ground toward agreed-upon ends, rather than short-term political victories? How do we embrace residents' knowledge of their community, so they become ambassadors of place? Unfortunately, when local tourism offices do undertake a "public engagement" program, it generally means a speakers bureau of hotel managers and other usual suspects who meet with civic groups, to tell residents what a wonderful industry tourism is. I did it too, and we all had the "for every $1 invested $8 is returned" speech memorized. And then one day a legislator asked me, "Dan, everybody makes the economic argument. What else you got?"

Well, we "got" something pretty special – an industry that, if we care for it right, will continue to provide jobs and generate taxes; I certainly don't dismiss the economic argument. Beyond that, tourism can help us protect historic structures, save our cultural heritage, preserve the natural environment, and serve and engage residents. Rather than an industry that divides communities, tourism can be a congealing force.

With civic tourism, then, we're focused on developing the skills and tactics that produce constructive involvement. We have years of research on designing and implementing community forums on explosive social and political issues – everything from immigration in the Southwest to logging in Montana. Organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council, for example, bring together environmentalists, the timber industry, and citizens to design plans that provide for both sustainable forests and sustainable lumber economies.

Given that travel and tourism is also about "working the landscape," the same techniques can and should be applied to tourism – the largest industry in many states, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and an industry that has tremendous potential to change our natural, cultural, and built environments. With the public's involvement, it's more likely that change will be for the better.

Dan Shilling is director of the Civic Tourism project. For nearly 15 years, Dan was director of the Arizona Humanities Council, where he wrote extensively on heritage tourism.The third national civic tourism conference takes place in Fort Collins, Colorado, August 11-14, 2010.

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