Why 5% Growth In the Rural Tourism Industry Could Endanger Small Locally Owned Businesses

by Joanne Steele on October 15, 2009


Recently I blogged about the World Tourism Organization’s statistics indicating that rural tourism is the fastest growing sector in the industry. With economic indicators pointing at rural tourism growth and if you were a big tourism business, where would you want to invest?

We’re not going to see Hiltons in very small rural towns but you can bet they are looking at ways to come into larger towns located in rural settings. South Lake Tahoe is a good example. They have become “rural lite” as big hotels push out the small locally owned lodgings, changing the character of the town.

This was not entirely unwelcome as the transformation was happening, but now the town is working hard to restore its unique identity.

Here’s the problem we rural tourism towns and businesses have to face. People are looking online for opportunities for a rural experience.

If you are prominent on the Internet, you’ll get their attention.

If you’re not, the company with the cutting edge, well-optimized web presence will get the business. And they only have to be “rural lite” to succeed. They are urban-based, taking customers to rural settings, or have smaller, less cookie cutter looking properties in rural areas ( have you seen what McDonalds is willing to do to fit into some rural towns???).

And they are able to turn rural areas into profit centers with rural residents becoming employees in their service sector businesses.

Let me jump onto my soapbox here and talk about rural vs. urban tourism.

Urban tourism is generally dominated by corporate businesses that provide tons of those low paying service sector jobs we hear about when people talk about the downside of tourism.

Rural tourism, on the other hand, is dominated by locally owned microbusinesses that support families and may also provide a few additional lower paying jobs.

We don’t want to see these locally owned businesses absorbed by corporate tourism.

India is seeing a rise in urban tour operators taking visitors on rural excursions. They are successful in part because unlike the rural destinations, they market on the Internet.  They also offer urban-style assurances of amenities and insurance that may attract new types of visitors to a rural experience. They may use and pay for rural services, but the big profits stay with the urban-based company.

This is coming to rural America with things like organized biking vacations and other types of all-inclusive rural adventures.

This is not all bad. It is helping to open rural tourism to urban dwellers who are concerned about services and safety. After a successful rural adventure these types of visitors may venture back on their own.

My major concern is that rural businesses and towns like yours NOT lose your locally driven tourism industry because you aren’t competing effectively online.

I am concerned that rural regions are slow to realize the potential of Internet marketing to level the travel playing field.

The Internet will allow rural regions to maintain their strong and growing sector for local entrepreneurs.

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