Can Stewardship Tourism Help Rural Communities Survive?

by Joanne Steele on September 6, 2013


Kansas volunteers helping rural businessMarci Penner at the Kansas Sampler Foundation thinks so. Her Kansas Explorers Club visit Kansas communities for fun and at the same time help those small Kansas towns keep their grocery stores open and fix up their local attractions.

Now Diane Strachan of Positive Futures is stepping up with a Stewardship Travel program in San Luis Obispo County, California that could become a blueprint for similar actions anywhere in the world. Here’s the press release announcing the launch of this program: Announcing Stewardship Travel

What makes Stewardship Tourism different from Geotourism or Ecotourism

These differences make Stewardship Tourism important for small rural communities

Geotourism – this term was coined by the National Geographic Society. The idea is to promote more conscious travel with the goal of integrating the principles of ecotourism, heritage tourism and cultural tourism. Geotourists are interested in the value that their travel can bring to a region.

There are dozens of geotourism regions now, with National Geographic sponsored websites and maps. It is a great boon to the regions willing and able to put together the resources and organization to partner with National Geographic. And there is not doubt that these geotourism regions will reap significant benefit from their efforts.

Ecotourism is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism, by definition, must have rich environmental assets.

Here is a good article that explains in more detail the difference between ecotourism and geotourism.

Use of both terms by a destination is governed by associations that have rules and costs. Ecotourism by The International Ecotourism Society. Geotourism by the National Geographic Society for Sustainable Destinations.

Stewardship Tourism doesn’t have a governing board. Here is Strachan’s definition: “Stewardship Tourism helps visitors make a difference on vacation. It’s about having many opportunities to care, learn, and connect deeper while on vacation.”

Stewardship Tourism Can Help Visitors Connect with Your Small Rural Town

The immense, worldwide popularity of geotourism and ecotourism destinations prove that there is great interest in travel that includes a stewardship component. Visitors are beginning to understand that their travel has impact far beyond the dollars they bring into a community.

What the Kansas Sampler Foundation Explorers Club teaches is that visiting small towns is great travel, and satisfying service combined. They travel to be of service, and their efforts are geotourism at it’s best, although you’ll probably never see a National Geographic Geotourism project encompassing the little Kansas towns they visit and serve.

What San Luis Obispo County is doing is to give regular visitors to their area the chance to include stewardship in every part of their travel. It takes geotourism and ecotourism to the next level. It integrates stewardship and sense of responsibility for local culture and natural resources into trips to the beach and wineries and restaurants – regular visitors become Stewardship Travelers.

How Can Your Rural Town Become a Stewardship Tourism Destination

Volunteer activities your town already puts on are Stewardship Tourism opportunities.

In my town of Dunsmuir, CA, we have an annual Upper Sacramento River Cleanup every September sponsored by the Sacramento River Exchange. This year’s event happens on September 21st. It brings people to town from all over the region.

It is a Stewardship Tourism event with great benefit to our town, our river and the people who participate. Press releases go out regionally. It’s on the River Exchange events calendar and part of their social media.

Stewardship Tourism options should be easy to find and easy to participate in.

San Luis Obispo uses maps, posters, and the internet to connect visitors with their Stewardship Tourism options.

In San Luis Obispo County, beach hotels now provide cleanup bags and gloves for people who want to help in beach cleanup. Businesses partner with non-profit organizations to make it easy for shoppers and diners to include a donation in their purchase.

In Kansas, small towns have learned that if you want help from the Kansas Explorer’s Club, all you need to do is ask and you’ll have folks driving backroads if need be in order to help.

Your small town may never qualify as a geotourism or ecotourism destination but you can become a Stewardship Tourism destination right now by inviting your visitors to “care, learn and give back.”

It can be something as small as inviting them to your town cleanup or church supper to support the local food bank.

It can be as big and organized as a backroads bicycle ride, with proceeds going to benefit your local youth sports programs. As soon as visitors become involved, it’s Stewardship Tourism.

Take a close look at how San Luis Obispo organized a countywide effort with over 70 different stewardship opportunities. This was a huge organizational and educational project overseen by the creator of the Stewardship Tourism concept, Diane Strachan. She’s can be hired for regional consultation.

But, don’t wait for funding to get started.

What is happening in your town that could become a Stewardship Tourism attraction?



I’ve said for years that rural tourism is the best economic development driver that a small rural community has.

Now, Twist Marketing, a firm in Alberta, Canada has done market research to prove this point. I ran across the information in a newspaper story, Tourism key to Stony Plain’s Growth in the Spruce Grove Examiner

I’m starting with this news story rather than giving you the link to the research first because it’s important to see how one town is using this research in their tourism development and economic development planning.

sign announcing a church supperLittle communities that don’t have the big bucks to hire outside consultants can use the information in this study to ramp up the quality of the visitor experience that might lead to a new resident.

Every small town is a cultural destination. Each small town has history and traditions that make it unique that visitors looking for authentic experiences will love.

Your town may have the best church suppers in the world – that’s cultural. You may all show up for the Friday night high school sports event – there’s even been tv shows to tout this. You may have artists and sculptors that work in your community but sell their art elsewhere – that’s an opportunity. You could have crafters that are making a mint on Etsy that nobody in town knows about.

It doesn’t require that you get zillion dollar grants to do murals to become a cultural destination! It takes some recognition of the local culture that you might be so used to that you’re ignoring it! Stony Plain already has a bunch of traditional cultural institutions they’re realizing have great economic development value.

Your little town may need to dig deeper to find your cultural niche.

But in the current tourism climate it’s worth the search. People want “authentic.” Travelers become residents when their tourism experience helps them see themselves as locals.

You’re a small town. You don’t want a zillion more visitors, and you certainly don’t want a million new residents. For most, a dozen or a hundred would be a windfall.

Now go to the study: “So Much For ‘Leave Only Foot Prints, Take Only Memories” The Inextricable Connections Between Travellers, Tourism & Community Development  Click the “read more” link to download the pdf of the study.

As you read, you’re going to realize how much you can do without a major change to what you’re already doing.

#1 consideration – cleanliness of public spaces.  You can do something about that with a broom and a little windex!!

#2 Quality of life of local residents.  This one may take some customer service training since too often that front-line worker is a young person anxious to escape.

#3 & #4 Cost of living and cost of housing. Well duh! Generally both are lower than any nearby urban areas. Make certain that people who work with visitors have information about this.

Look carefully at all the rest. No small town is going to do well in all categories, but you’re not trying to attract millions, as I’ve said.

You are a specialized niche. If your internet connection is lousy, market to luddites – people who want to be off the grid, If you have a few municipal issues – you’re “a big happy dysfunctional family!”

The key here is to be who you are and sell it. The study shows that people are looking for what you have to offer, both as visitors and as new residents.

 “Selling it” used to be a challenging, expensive proposition. Now, because of the internet and social media it is not.

I disagree with some of Twist Marketing’s conclusions. They have a very specific definition of arts and culture.

Marci Penner at the Kansas Sampler Foundation in Kansas, USA has a better handle on rural culture. Use her list of Rural Culture Elements to evaluate your town and you’ll easily find your niche. When I visited Marci, she took me on a tour of vintage water towers!

Please, let me know how you use this study. I’m delighted to have discovered it, and want to thank Twist Marketing for freely sharing it.

Yes, I’ve written about this before:

Are You a Rural Tourism Destination? If You Say No, Read On

Rural Tourism: A Viable Rural Industry and A Vital Business Attraction Tool

Rural Tourism: A Great Business Attraction Strategy For Small Towns

Thanks to VC Hammer for the very funny photo on Flickr which proves you can market anything, even questionable church suppers!


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