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OPINION: Local tourism equals economic development

by By John Newby Building Main Street, not Wall Street | May 11, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Tourism has proven to be a powerful force for economic development worldwide in recent years.

According to the World Tourism Organization, tourism accounts for approximately 10% of global GDP, which equates to one job in every ten jobs worldwide, generating over $1.7 trillion in earnings. These figures highlight the significant economic potential of the tourism industry and its ability to drive economic growth, create jobs, and foster local and regional development.

Make no mistake; local tourism can significantly impact economic development in small rural communities in America. According to a report by the U.S. Travel Association, tourism generated $1.1 trillion in economic output in 2019, and the industry supported 9.4 million jobs, many of which are located in rural areas. Undoubtedly, local tourism can help stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and increase community resilience.

While the benefits are many, one of the key benefits of local tourism is its ability to generate revenue for local businesses. Visitors who come to rural communities for tourism often spend money on local products and services, such as restaurants, hotels, and shops, which can provide a much-needed boost to the local economy.

For example, a study by the University of Minnesota found that the annual economic impact of tourism in Cook County, Minnesota, was $131 million, supporting over 2,000 jobs. While each county and community has varying tourism opportunities, this demonstrates the potential of local tourism to create jobs and stimulate economic growth in rural areas.

Local tourism can also help to diversify local economies, reducing dependence on a single industry or sector. Many rural communities rely on agriculture or natural resource extraction as their primary economic driver, which can make them vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices or environmental disasters. Local tourism can provide a complementary economic activity source, helping insulate communities from economic shocks. For example, in Fort Bragg, California, the local tourism industry has helped to support the town's economy following the closure of a nearby military base in the 1990s.

In addition to its economic benefits, local tourism can also help to promote community pride and cultural heritage. Visitors who come to rural communities for tourism often seek unique and authentic experiences that showcase local culture and traditions. This can help promote a sense of community pride and identity and preserve local heritage for future generations. For example, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, showcases the region's natural and cultural heritage, attracting over 200,000 visitors annually and contributing to the local economy.

However, the benefits of local tourism will not come automatically. Communities must work to develop and promote their tourism offerings. This will require foresight and significant investment in infrastructure, marketing, and workforce development. Local tourism can also have negative impacts, including overcrowding, traffic congestion, and environmental degradation for those communities not prepared and under poor management. While local tourism can be a positive game-changer for a community, it must be managed sustainably and responsibly to maximize its economic benefits while minimizing its negative social and environmental impacts.

Local tourism can be a powerful force for economic development in small rural communities in America, creating jobs, stimulating economic growth, and promoting community pride and cultural heritage. However, its benefits are not automatic and require careful planning, investment, and management. Communities must work to develop and promote their tourism offerings while also ensuring that tourism is managed sustainably and responsibly. By doing so, local tourism can drive inclusive and sustainable economic development, reducing poverty and achieving sustainable development goals in rural America.

John Newby is a nationally-recognized columnist, speaker, and publisher. He consults with chambers, communities, businesses, and media. His "Building Main Street, not Wall Street" column appears in 60-plus newspapers and media outlets. As founder of Truly-Local, he assists chambers, communities, media, and businesses in creating synergies that build vibrant communities. He can be reached at [email protected].

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