Never a better time for small town tourism

Published 10:42 pm Tuesday, September 17, 2013

by Libbie Johnson

Over the past five years, tourism has made some big changes.

The economy in nosedive was probably the cause, but the result is that as tourists, we have lost interest in cookie cutter attractions. We are now more interested in “authentic,” meaning that small towns can be successful for being exactly what they are – small towns. The new tourist is looking for a variety of new experiences such as local food, agritourism, heritage tourism, geotourism, adventure tourism and so on.

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The new face of tourism is more interesting and engaging than ever before. Geotourism is about enjoying natural areas that specifically focus on landscape and environmental awareness. Heritage tourism takes visitors on roads less traveled to explore historic churches, quilt trails or traditional crafts. Authentic tourism attracts visitors who want to see things just as they are.

The Slow Food movement, for example, is about getting people off the interstate and into small towns restaurants where hopefully, they are serving up locally grown foods and sharing local specialties.

This summer my husband and I took several short day trips to Black Mountain, Spruce Pine, Waynesville and Cashiers. I came away with some thoughts about what made each trip enjoyable.

Public bathrooms: Let’s face it, after two glasses of sweet tea on a hot Sunday afternoon, you’re going to need a bathroom. Having available facilities extends your visit for more shopping, museums and dining.

Signage: There’s nothing worse than driving around an unfamiliar town with no directions. Where is downtown? Where is the country doctor museum? Where is the lake? Wayfinding signage can be expensive, but visitors need directions. The more they know, the longer they’ll stay and the more they’ll spend.

A place to linger: Whether it’s outdoor dining, benches on the street or a park, guests need a place to linger. Visitors want a spot to rest and re-group.

We’re open: There’s nothing more deflating than to get to a town you’ve been dying to visit only to find that everything is closed. Looking in the windows is not fun for long. Sunday, according to most tourism data, continues to be a strong day for tourism but if everything is closed… not so much.

Exciting new opportunities in our area’s tourism offerings – the longest, steepest zip line in North America, the new St. Luke’s Plaza with a fun place to eat, play and linger and the proposed winery trail — all add up to tourism dollars.

Tourism dollars are like a cherry on top of the county’s economy. Tourism weathers economic downturns better than other industries and it stabilizes rural economies.

These trends suggest a substantial change in the nature of tourism in the United States. They show tourists will support American heritage and increasingly will be willing to pay for high quality leisure experiences. The tourism industry is changing dramatically to provide these personalized experiences. These trends focus attentions on the resources of rural communities: culture, values, quality environment and a “friendly” lifestyle.

According to a recent assessment by Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, North Carolina’s tourism industry is almost equal to the state’s manufacturing sector, with last year’s receipts totaling $19 billion. Secretary Decker thinks it is time to give North Carolina’s tourism renewed respect with more dollars for regional marketing. In turn, this is also a good time to give our local offerings renewed respect.