What Does Sustainability Have To Do With Rural Tourism?

by Joanne Steele on April 13, 2010


Returning from a rural tourism conference where sustainability was a topic of constant discussion, I find myself thinking about it everywhere we stop.

Anna Pollock and Nicole Vaugeois

Anna Pollock and Nicole Vaugeois, noted experts in sustainability and tourism.

I also recently received an announcement of the next sustainable tourism conference for the state of California.

Two views of sustainability are emerging:

Sustainability as a way of life and survival.

Sustainability as a part of a profit driven industrial tourism model.

You’ve probably guessed where my heart and soul lies.

In her presentation on sustainability, Anna Pollock talked passionately about a need to move our thinking from the old industrial model for tourism to the new networked model.

The industrial model puts rural tourism at a distinct disadvantage. We’re competing with a Disneyland model of what rural looks like. We’ll never be cute enough or have enough attractions or lodging or expert marketers or events.

The industrial model of sustainability adds a confusing riddle to this conversation. Is it more “sustainable” and “green” for us to buy our toilet paper made from recycled paper at the local WalMart, or the regular stuff at our locally owned rural grocery store? Which allows us to market our lodging as “green” which according to the industrial model lets us charge more per room/night???

Enter the Networked Economy.

Anna started the workshop portion of her presentation by having us all – rural residents everyone – think back to how our town worked in 1980. We tossed around ideas like, “buy socks and underwear in Main St,” “effective service organizations providing local community service,” “work for young people,” and “taking care of our own.”

We realized as the workshop progressed that we understand what a networked economy feels like. We may not be digitally networked in rural communities, but we are closely and effectively networked. We depended on each other and take care of each other.

THIS is the tourism we have to offer in rural communities. And when statisticians tell us that increasing numbers of visitors are looking for “authentic experiences” THIS is what they’re talking about.

Rural tourism is about having an experience rather than a purchasing a package or product. We facilitate people experiencing.

Back to Sustainability.

For rural communities, SUSTAINABILITY is about more that towels, toilet paper, and carbon offsets. It’s about the future of our way of life.

It’s about giving visitors the authentic experience they’re looking for and by doing this, preserving our very lifestyle.

The catch is that we need to update our natural rural network. We need to realize that broadband technology is just an extension of that small town information network we all depend on to learn who needs what, and is going where.

Being a part of this massive digital network is more important that highways and electricity if we’re going to sustain our rural way of life.

It’s our time. The local food movement and authentic tourism movement and slow food movement and trails movement, etc.. is about the sustainability of rural culture.

If we capture this opportunity, it will give our kids a reason to come back to rural.

It will give our urban neighbors the desire to recharge their batteries closer to home.

It will be about REAL sustainability.

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