Sunday, November 15, 2015

Finding the balance between rural tourism and transforming the rural into urban enclaves.


At the root of the myriad challenges facing rural dwellers is an anemic economy.  Whether local economic activity is focused on a singular entity (factory farms, coal mines, or similar monolithic entities) or a hodgepodge of small service industries that limp along, a common theme for those struggling in rural locations is simply a lack of economic opportunity.  To an extent the lack of opportunity is understandable: without a large enough population, there simply isn't the impetus for massive economic development. Therefore, the industries that do exist in rural places are the primary employers--prisons, hog farms, and mines. 

Rather than turn to these dominating rural employers, there is an industry that may help alleviate economic underdevelopment.  Tourism.  And while tourism, like agribusiness or resource extraction, is not a magic bullet, it certainly has the potential to bring vital services and development to rural economies. 

Tourism and rural infrastructure

In some places, like Jackson Hole, Telluride, and other mountain towns in the Rockies, tourism fundamentally changed the character of rural areas.  Sometimes these changes altered the towns to no longer be rural--through an increase in population and infrastructure--to the extent that the towns can no longer be considered rural.  

In other rural locations, tourism is much more of an intermittent phenomenon. For example, Birdsville, Queensland, Australia.  Birdsville is a remote place in western Queensland at the edge of the Simpson Desert and about 1,000 miles from the state capital of Brisbane.  The population is approximately 115 people; of whom half are Indigenous Australians.  However the town receives approximately 45,000 visitors from April-October.   7,000 of those visitors come during one weekend in September for the Birdsville Races.  The remainder of the visitors are generally older Australians who are going around the country in RVs, or the occasional backpacker.   

However, this influx of seasonal tourism presents unique challenges for the rural environment.  Generally, services are already limited.  In Birdsville, there is a single police officer.  There is a court, but it lacks a resident magistrate.  Instead, court is convened on the weekend of the Birdsville races, over telephone with a judge from Townsville--located on the Queensland coast 832 miles away.  The school has one teacher and 5 enrolled students.  There is a local clinic, but if there are serious health issues, the best treatment option is a 1,000-mile flight to Brisbane.  By any definition, Birdsville is rural.  Its infrastructure is designed for 363days of quiet, and 2 days of massive tourism.  Such a planning process is not 

The town plans for the annual influx of visitors exceptionally early. Police officers are drafted in from other towns, such as Mt. Isa, 10 hours to the north. Foodstuff and beer inventories begin in March.  In 2010, the races were cancelled due to torrential rain; and the tourists were stranded for 2 days.  The town ran out of food (but not beer); and the last pack of cigarettes in town was auctioned off for $200.   With the exception of the dedicated tourism industry, most of Birdsville engages in agricultural enterprises.  Services, including access to food, are limited to what can be grown, flown in, and kept in extreme temperatures.  So while the Birdsville Races put the rural town on the map, and it is generally prosperous, the question seems to remain, is the tourism and preparation worth it?

Is there a balance?

In 2010, the State government of Alberta, Canada, commissioned a report on "Rural Tourism."  In it, rural tourism was primarily defined as, "the 'country experience' [with] opportunities for visitors to directly experience agricultural and/or natural environments."  And while focused primarily on agritourism, the report also includes "nature holidays and ecotourism, walking, climbing, and riding holidays, adventure, sport, and health tourism, hunting, angling, educational travel, arts, and heritage tourism, and in some areas, ethnic tourism [sic]."  The report acknowledges that rural towns essentially have two options: beef up infrastructure in the hopes of supporting year round tourism, or banking on annual events to fill town coffers, and eek out an existence for the remainder of the year. 

However, on a whole, the report finds that rural tourism is generally positive. As a form of economic development, the injection of outside cash is significant and allows for rural job creation, new business opportunities, increased infrastructure services, and increased land conservation (at least in places where ecotourism is prominent).  The report recognizes some of the problems with rural tourism--namely the seasonal nature, but seems to advocate for rural places up and down Canada to embrace their rural nature and follow in the successful footsteps of places like Ballyhoura in Ireland and the Trossachs in Scotland (places that relied on significant government grants, development agencies, and community involvement).  I wonder how a lot of rural communities would feel about increased outside government influence on their economy.


Birdsville may be an extreme example of rural tourism: a town of 115 that welcomes 7,000 for two days.  However, in rural towns--with populations of 2,000-3,000, the questions surrounding tourism are difficult to answer.  On one hand, tourism brings in money, allows for infrastructure expansion, and may provide for a more sustainable economic base (if not exactly diversified).  However, there are drawbacks.  Tourism can be notoriously fickle.  When trends change, the rural town that embraced tourism may be left thigh and dry.  And, taken to the extreme, encouraging tourism may lead to the fundamental destruction of the rural character of a place.  Rurality is partially defined by spatial distance and sparse population (among other things).  With the increased population and connectivity that tourism brings, what does that mean for rurality?  Does the tourist town simply become a pastiche of rural life? An island of prosperity shaped by urban notions of what rural should look like?

I have no idea what the right answer is for fostering economic development.  Every rural situation is different, and like agribusiness, mining, timber, or other traditional rural industries, tourism is not a magic bullet.  However, when developed thoughtfully, tourism can help boost local economies, and provide some semblance of economic stability. With the right event, a town can be on the map for one weekend a year and enjoy a sleepy, successful existence.  But generally, for tourism to be successful, the development should reflect the nature of the rural place, and embrace the complexities of the rural lifestyle--from farming to solitude.  Otherwise, tourism will simply make formerly rural places urban enclaves in the middle of nowhere.

For more on the urban corruption (or at least, exploitation) of the rural, read: this and this.
For more on agritourism, read: thisthis, and this.
For more on ecotourism, read: this and this.

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