5 Things We Learned About Rural Towns By Talking to Locals

by Joanne Steele on September 6, 2009

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We’re home after two weeks on the road visiting dozens of small towns in five states and two Canadian provinces.

Here are 5 general observations I made after spending time with small town tourism business owners and community movers and shakers.

Downtown Winthrop, Washington

1. With economic hard times in small rural communities comes interest in tourism.

If things in rural communities are perceived by locals to be going pretty well economically, there is little or no interest in marketing for tourism, even if there are lots of activities and attractions in the area for visitors.

2. Margaret Mead must have been visiting a rural community when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The towns that are successfully working toward transformation are often led by one or two people along with a core group of supporters, all who:

  • Are respected and trusted.
  • Are willing to take it slowly.
  • Listen carefully, and encourage consideration of differing points of view.
  • Focus on projects that benefit locals first with increased tourism an expected positive outcome.
  • Are tech savvy.
  • Are relentlessly optimistic.

3. Good coffee and wifi are everywhere!

4. People were amazingly generous with information about their community, and willing to drop everything to talk about what’s working and not working in their town. We were treated like “out-of-town company” everywhere we visited.

5. People in rural towns are not at all concerned about having VISITORS. They are concerned about how TOURISM might change their small town way of life.

There are many examples of this happening to small towns and depending on which state we were in, those examples were used. “We don’t want to be ‘Leavenworthed,’ or ‘Sun Valleyed,’ or ‘Apsenized,’” they exclaimed.

There is a significant rise in eco, geo, adventure, agri, sustainable and authentic tourism worldwide. I think this is part of a new awareness among large numbers of travelers that “leave no trace” travel has moved from the camping and backpacking world into the realm of travel in general.

Every one of the towns I visited is ready to benefit from this new awareness. They may need to spruce up a little for company, but their basic small town lifestyle is what travelers are looking for these days.

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