Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Before the age of affordable air travel, families had to make do with cramming everyone into a Chevy Bel Air or Ford Station Wagon instead of Coach. Air travel was for the wealthy before the Jumbo Jet ushered in the era of affordable airfares for the whole family. Back in the 50s and 60s, four out of five families had never traveled on a plane.
For me, my own vacation memories involved going to bed in Houston and waking up in El Paso. It involved waking up sweating in the back of our car while air conditioning meant opening the side wings and the air vents so the hot air in the car could move at the same speed as the hot air outside.
I made a game out of annoying my older brother who would pass the time reading a book and ignoring me. He was the studious one. My mom would fiddle with the AM radio, changing stations mid-song. My father, for his part, would yell at me saying time honored dad things like “don’t make me stop this car” every time I asked, “are we there yet?” (For millennials with children, it would be “don’t make me stop this car and text you”) The passing of telephone poles and fence posts were the only entertainment for miles. No video games or smart phones were available that would help pass the time till we arrived at our destination
Car traveling was a rite of passage during vacations just as jumping into the hotel swimming pool lathered with sunscreen lotion and mosquito repellent. I often wondered if it weren’t for summer vacations how many mosquitoes would starve to death if I did not go on vacation with my family.
So, you ask, what does this have to do with economic development?
What goes around comes around, it seems. More and more families are taking their cars on vacations and exploring America, especially rural America. As such, the tourism trade is changing rapidly, to the tune of $7.6 trillion in revenue and 292 million jobs serving tourists.
For the first time in seven years, rural populations are rising in scenic areas within about an hour’s drive of a major city. Places with access to urban amenities or outdoor recreation saw the most growth. Wildlife-related recreation in the West recently generated more than $3 billion for the economy.
New and exciting professions, which mean new jobs for communities losing their young talent, are becoming available to the next generation. For example, the overlap of wind farms and mountain climbers across the West has created career opportunities for adventure seekers like wind turbine technicians. Workers with appropriate ropes and safety certifications can earn a steady salary by pairing their personal passion with jobs now in high demand.
Some startups have taken a page out of the urban tourism market by seeking to connect hunters, anglers and outdoor recreation users with private landowners, similar to the Airbnb model. This provides an opportunity for rural property owners to earn additional revenue, and outdoor enthusiasts to access private land.
One out of every eight jobs in the U.S. is travel and tourism dependent. Yet, many economic developers don’t pay much attention to the tourism sector, falsely believing that it is an economy characterized by low wages and unskilled labor.
Well, as Bob Dylan once said while on a road trip with this parents, “The times they are a-changin’.”
Tourism has huge potential in a community. Whether you’re a hustling and bustling metropolis or a one-light town somewhere off the beaten path, chances are good that someone will visit you, given the right reasons and a little elbow grease. Here are some trends that I think economic developers should be aware for travelers in 2019.
Car travel has become popular again. Traveling with a family on an airplane is expensive and these days, unpleasant. It takes longer and longer to go through security and endless boarding protocols. The terminals are packed. Planes are packed. And kids still aren’t patient. They never were. They never will be. Factoring in travel time to and from the airport, parking, incidental expenses and flight times (assuming you aren’t delayed) going by car instead seems like paradise. Plus, you can stop anywhere you want along the way, which is downright dangerous if attempted on an airplane.
Going off the grid. Sometimes the best times can be found off the beaten path. Sure, big city life has a lot to offer, like gridlock, ringing phones, computer viruses, eating fast foods at your desk, slow Internet and the mysterious error code 404. On the other hand, many rural parts of the country offer incredible beauty, a relaxing pace, animals that aren’t in cages, huge breakfasts and accommodations that aren’t equal to a car payment. You could get use to not being bothered by the electronic and fast food world. After all, off the grid is the kind of life you don’t need a vacation from.
Experiences, not sightseeing. Tourists these days want authentic experiences, not canned tours traveling on city streets with a bored narrator at the wheel. Aquatic activities – snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing and such – all rank as the fastest growing tourist activities and all found in rural areas. What does your locale have to offer? History? Nature? Natural beauty? Recreation? Quirky culture? Mine the experiences and the tourists will follow.
Culinary education. Culinary travel is on the rise, but people want to know what’s local, not what’s trendy these days. Encourage locals to teach culinary arts, highlight locally sourced foods, and showcase indigenous recipes. Identify these entrepreneurial assets in your community and provide them the tools, resources, and markets to succeed. Rural communities are a foodie’s paradise. Many classes offered in rural communities are not even in the classroom but become an outdoor family participatory experience taught by local makers, doers, and dreamers.
Down on the farm. Visiting a working farm can be a wonderful family activity, educational and entertaining for children and adults alike. People want to experience authentic rural life. Old MacDonald had a farm and vacationers want to see it. If you have them, market them, especially if tourists can stay there, help out, encounter barnyard critters and enjoy a meal that came from the land, not the freezer. (No Barnyard critters were hurt or eaten as the previous sentence may indicate).
Treat them with care. There is a clear relationship between creating a connection and return visits. Show visitors that you care about them, not just their money. Work with your local tourism folks, Main Street businesses and community leaders to create a positive, lasting experience and watch the word-of-mouth referrals flow into your economy. Rural communities working together seem to be less competitive and more cooperative in creating a meaningful and memorable adventure for the whole family.
Show them where they came from. Ancestry.com has millions of visitors for a reason. People want to know where they came from and they want to share it with their family. This is a potential goldmine for rural America, making it easy for visitors to connect with their past and walk in the footsteps of those who came before them. On the other hand, if you think your family is normal, then you may not be interested in your genealogy.
The ‘mobile’ homer. A lot of people are retiring early; others are just living small and enjoying a life on the road. According to surveys, travel after retirement is clearly the most popular and desired pursuit for this phase of life. From day trips by car in the backcountry to months long camping across the back roads, retirees have wanderlust! These nomadic travelers are often entrepreneurs that buy an RV and put roots down for a while in a community, wanting to experience it from a different point of view. They may be running a business from their RV or making money by selling their hobbies and crafts. Embrace them and help them find opportunity to make and spend money in your community.
Pets? You bet. There’s a reason that a lot of tourist-centric communities have water bowls outside their retail establishments. Pets are not only big business they are also part of the family. Would you go on a vacation and leave a family member at home? (For some parents the thought is tempting) You certainly would not think of putting them in the cargo area if you travel by plane. (Parents may think about that as well) If your dog likes to “ruff” it, they will enjoy the dog friendly hiking in many rural areas that can include one-hour walks to overnight guided trips. Dogs can be great companions for hiking with the family. Plus, approximately 60% of U.S. properties accept pets these days as do a lot of businesses, even restaurants.
Shop ‘til you drop. Shopping is a primary activity of tourists and a local rural economy. Travelers don’t want to buy something they can get at a franchise store in their hometown. Nearly half of all travelers intentionally leave room in their luggage so they can bring unique stuff home. Nearly 20% of all travelers buy an extra suitcase and 51% say they did some of their holiday shopping while traveling. And if they don’t want to take it with them, make it easy to ship.
Taking a family vacation is an American tradition. Now that Americans are hitting the roads as well as the airways, perhaps it’s time to build tourism into your own economic development planning, realizing that you may just be sitting on the next Yelp! hotspot. The opportunity is there, and attracting visitors can be a lot easier – and more productive – than attracting a new business to town.
Are we there yet?