How communities can plan better for tourism

Planning – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

by Edward T. McMahon

SO WHAT DID YOU DO on your summer vacation? Did the destination meet your expectations? Would you recommend it to a friend? Or did dirty air, traffic congestion, crowded beaches, slipshod service, or towns awash in tourist schlock leave you feeling frustrated and cheated?

Tourism is the world’s largest industry. Today, Americans spend almost $400 billion a year on travel and recreation away from home. Travel and tourism account for 11.4% of employment — or one out of every nine jobs in the United States. Tourism is the leading industry in 37 states. But it is a two-edged sword; in many parts of the country, tourism is harming the very assets that attracted visitors in the first place.

We are all familiar with the colorful ads that American cities and towns use to promote their charms. They are always filled with attractive scenes: sunsets, azaleas in bloom, historic house-museums beautifully photographed.

But the reality is often not as lovely. Back away from the columned house and you’ll find, as likely as not, that it is hemmed in by a fast-food restaurant with a screaming red roof on one side and a parking lot with a flashing portable sign on the other. The advertisement is handsome; the city is not.

I’ll never forget our family vacation to “Pennsylvania Dutch Country.” Expecting to see bucolic countryside where every farm is prosperous and every town is quaint (thanks to the Amish and Mennonites who settled there in the 18th century), we were disappointed to find a sprawling suburb dominated by roads lined with strip shopping centers. My most vivid memory is of our daughter saying, “Daddy, I didn’t know the Amish lived in castles,” as we sat stuck in traffic near the Dutch Wonderland theme park.

There is an important but often ignored relationship between tourism and the environment. Unfortunately, many tourism officials are far more concerned with marketing and promotions — creating fancy brochures and compelling ads — than they are with protecting and enhancing the product they are trying to sell.

Tourism involves more than marketing. It also involves making destinations more appealing. This means conserving and enhancing a destination’s natural assets. It is, after all, the unique heritage, culture, wildlife, or natural beauty of a community or region that attracts sightseers in the first place.

Clearly, certain places have more appeal than others. But no place will retain its special appeal without effort. If the destination is too crowded, too commercial, or too much like every place else, then why go? The more a community does to conserve its unique resources, whether natural or man-made, the more tourists it will attract. On the other hand, the more a community comes to resemble “Anyplace, U.S.A.,” the less reason there will be to visit.This is why local planning, zoning, and urban design standards are so important to communities with tourism resources. When shopping centers and housing developments come in, do they complement the resource or compromise it? Communities know they are in trouble when new development shapes the character of the community, instead of the character of the community shaping new development.

Studies reveal significant differences in the way tourists and residents perceive a community. Tourists notice everything around them, while residents tend to tune out the familiar environment along the roads they travel daily. If the character of the destination is at odds with its description in promotional literature, the tourist will feel cheated.

Creating a false image can spoil a vacation and discourage return visits. The marketing of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania is first-rate, but the landscape that appears in its promotional literature is fast disappearing. Many tourists, like me, go once but don’t go back.

Tourism is a voluntary activity, and tourists are faced with competing destinations. Given a choice, where will they go? Virtually every study of traveler motivations has shown that, along with rest and recreation, visiting scenic areas and historic sites are two of the top reasons why people travel. Travel writer Arthur Frommer says that, “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 doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

SO HOW CAN A COMMUNITY attract tourists and their dollars without losing its soul? First, the community’s leaders must recognize that the place itself — not the trappings around it — is the reason that most tourists come for a visit. Second, they must understand that sustaining tourism is a long-term strategy. As economic development expert Don Rypkema says, “Nobody goes anywhere to go down a waterslide or buy a T-shirt. They may do both these things, but that isn’t the reason they went there.” Any place can create a tourist attraction, but it is those places that are attractions in and of themselves that people most want to visit.”

Preservation-minded cities like Annapolis, Maryland; Savannah, Georgia; Santa Fé, New Mexico; Victoria, British Columbia; Quebec City; and Guanajuato, Mexico, are among North America’s leading tourism destinations precisely because they have protected their unique architectural heritage. By contrast, cities that have obliterated their past attract hardly any visitors at all, except for the highly competitive and notoriously fickle convention business.

Not every community is blessed with a great natural wonder or a rich legacy of historic buildings, but most communities have the potential to attract tourists. To realize this potential, a community must take stock of its assets. What natural, cultural, or historic resources does it have to offer? What features give the community its special character and identity?

This is how Lowell, Massachusetts, began its transformation from a city known as a gritty, declining factory town — with an unemployment rate of 23% — to a booming tourist destination that receives more than 900,000 visitors a year. The city has restored 250 historic buildings, and seen more than $1 billion in new investments. It all began by recognizing the potential that existed in those abandoned mill buildings.

TO PRESERVE AND ENHANCE the resources that make a community interesting, memorable, and unique, communities and the tourism industry should consider the following:

Focus on the authentic. Make every effort to preserve the authentic aspects of local heritage and culture, including handicrafts, art, music, language, architecture, landscape, traditions, and history. The true story of an area is worth telling even if it’s painful or disturbing. In Birmingham, for example, the Civil Rights Museum and Historic District describes the city’s turbulent history during the 1950s and 1960s. This has enhanced Birmingham’s appeal as a destination. By contrast, many tourist attractions near the Smoky Mountains National Park portray Cherokee Indians as using teepees, totem poles, and feather war bonnets, even though this was never part of their culture. This commercialization and stereotyping has caused anger towards the tourism industry and devalued the area as a destination.

Recognize that tourism has limits. Too many cars, boats, tour buses, condominiums, or people can overwhelm a community and harm fragile resources. Tourism development that exceeds the capacity of the ecosystem or fails to respect a community’s sense of place will result in resentment and the eventual destruction of the very attributes that tourists come to enjoy.

A few communities have found ways to balance nature and commerce. One of them is Sanibel Island, Florida, a popular Gulf Coast resort that is one of the world’s premier places to collect seashells and see subtropical birds. To protect its abundant wildlife, white sand beaches, and quiet charm, Sanibel developed a master plan based on an analysis of what was needed to protect the island’s natural systems. The plan set a limit on the island population consistent with its drinking water supply, the habitat needs of wildlife, the need to evacuate the island before hurricanes and other considerations. By establishing development standards based on ecological constraints, Sanibel has managed to preserve one of America’s most exceptional sub-tropical environments while also accommodating a high number of visitors.

Ensure that hotels, motels, restaurants, and shops fit in with their surroundings. Tourists crave integrity of place wherever they go, and homogeneous, “off-the-shelf” corporate chain and franchise architecture work against this. I remember how charmed I was on my first visit to Lexington, Virginia — a Norman Rockwell sort of town in the Shenandoah Valley north of Roanoke. Nor will I forget how offended I was on a later visit when I found a row of gaudy, cookie-cutter fast-food joints, cheek by jowl with the town’s historic architecture. By contrast, the fast-food restaurants in Freeport, Maine, (home to L.L. Bean) are located in restored 19th-century buildings.

A community’s food and lodging establishments are part of the total tourism package. Shouldn’t hotels in Maine be different in style from those in Maryland, Montana, Malaysia, or Morocco? It is this search for something different that his given rise to the booming bed and breakfast, adventure travel, and heritage tourism industries.

Interpret the resource. Visitors want information about what they are seeing. Interpretation can be a powerful story-telling tool that can make an attraction, even an entire community, come alive. It can also result in better managed resources by explaining why the resources are important. Interpretation instills respect and fosters stewardship in both visitors and residents. Education about natural and cultural resources can instill community pride and sense of place. The National Elk Refuge, outside of Jackson, Wyoming, is one of several “watchable wildlife” sites that include interpretive displays that help visitors to understand that without “habitat” there would be no elk, bears, or other wildlife to watch.

Remember æsthetics and ecology. Clean air and clean water are fundamental to sustainable tourism. But as Mark Twain once said, “We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes or appearance are the externals by which we judge.” Many cities have gotten used to ugliness, accepting it as an inevitable part of progress. But more enlightened communities recognize that the way a community looks affects its image and its economic well-being. Protecting scenic views and vistas, planting trees, landscaping parking lots, and controlling signs are all fundamentally important to the economic health of a community.

Enhance the journey as well as the destination. Getting there should be half the fun, but frequently it is not. There are many great destinations in America, but unfortunately, there are fewer great journeys left, which is why it is in the interest of the tourism industry to encourage the development of greenways, heritage corridors, bike paths, and hiking trails. This is also why local and state governments should designate more scenic byways and protect more roads with scenic or historic character.

In recent years, American tourism has had less and less to do with America, and more to do with tourism. As the amount of open land decreases, tourism marketing dollars increase. As historic buildings disappear, theme parks proliferate. Unless the tourist industry thinks it can continue to sell trips to communities clogged with look-alike motels, polluted streams, traffic jams, and cluttered commercial strips, it ought to join in an effort to protect the natural, cultural, and scenic resources on which it relies.

Edward T. McMahon, a land-use planner and lawyer, works for the Conservation Fund in Arlington, Va. His new book, Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities (Island Press) discusses how to manage tourism.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 1997, edition of the Washington Post National Weekly Edition, and is here reprinted with the author’s permission.