Why Rural Tourism Needs and Deserves Governmental Help

by Joanne Steele on May 17, 2010

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This morning I read an interesting post and comments on a forum at Exploroz.com about why rural Queensland, Australia isn’t doing a better job of attracting and serving tourists.

We rural communities and tourism related businesses have heard all the same arguments in our own corners of the globe.

  1. Why aren’t your businesses open when I’m here?
  2. Why don’t you do something about the way your town looks?
  3. Why doesn’t your town do a better job of marketing itself?
  4. Why do you expect the government to help with YOUR industry?

If I were to brave the invective and post my response on this forum, here’s what I’d say.

Rural tourism is a unique industry.

Most small town businesses live or die based on their local customer base. Tourism businesses are different.

Rural tourism businesses rely on visitors, meaning that, for instance, Bob’s Tackle and Gift Shop first has to get customers to his town and then to his shop. To be successful, Bob’s Tackle and Gifts needs other tourism related businesses providing services. He isn’t competing against other tackle and/or gift shops in town for business (In fact, he’s better off if there are several tackle and gift shops because they will make his town a tackle and gift shop destination for visitors)! He’s competing with other rural towns for customers. Challenging!

Running a rural tourism business is complicated. Regular non-tourism based small town businesses plan their days off, and everyone in town adjusts their shopping habits to accommodate them.

For rural tourism businesses, setting your day off is a gamble. Will you pick the best day when the fewest visitors are in town? Do you take the chance and hire someone to cover for you 7 days a week?  I’ve talked about this before: Setting Retail Hours in Tourism Towns.

To be successful, rural tourism businesses need a willing community and they need each other.

Bob’s Tackle and Gift Shop can’t create an inviting looking town all by himself. He can sweep his own sidewalk and wash his windows til the cows come home, and if every other business in town looks like the dump, he’s out of business because visitors won’t stop.

The mistake many small communities make is thinking that slicking up for company means remodeling the kitchen! Your town doesn’t need to wait to improve your visual appeal until you can afford a major public works project. Sweep your sidewalks. Install some flowerboxes. Wash your windows. Put out a “welcome” sign at the entrance to your town.

Read about how the Irish approach this: How The Irish “Tidy Towns” Concept Can Help You Revitalize Your Small Town

Rural tourism marketing is challenging and complex.

Most non-tourism related rural businesses are successful because they serve a specific need their townspeople have. Towns need grocery stores and hardware stores and automotive shops etc. Their advertising and marketing is about special sales, and often about support for local events, youth sports and service-oriented projects. If you do a good job, have regular hours, and get your name out there in local places, people will come.

But who needs motels and gift shops and specialty restaurants and adventure businesses? Visitors, who live all over the place, who need to first be attracted to a town before they can be attracted into a specific business.

Bob’s Tackle and Gifts can’t do that kind of marketing alone. He can’t afford advertising in big regional publications and media outlets. He knows that the Internet is leveling the playing field for small businesses, but he is having trouble finding the time to learn the complex and ever changing world of Internet marketing.

He also understands that he needs to work with other visitor service providers to be successful. People won’t come to town just to visit Bob’s Tackle. They will expect to be able to eat, stay and shop at other stores and have some type of authentic rural experience.

So here’s where the government comes in. Tourism is one of the top three industries in the world. It is the last best hope for rural communities worldwide. It can save rural towns from turning into ghost towns.

Because of tourism’s value to the whole community, governmental help is warranted.  Public funds are often required to organize the marketing, help with the rural revitalization efforts, support business collaborations and provide some attraction and support efforts to create the mix of businesses needed to turn a 45 minute drive through town into an overnight stay.  Here’s a recent post about how Springfield, IL, US benefitted from a little governmental money.

That governmental help circulates throughout the community. Visitors come to town, spend the night or the day and spend money, which tourism business owners circulate by spending at the local grocery store and hardware store. Supporting rural tourism efforts can be the most cost effective way for a town or region to use public funds.

And with the recent growth of interest in authentic experiences and sustainable tourism no additional unwanted development is required to be successful! Take a sneak peak at Kansas’ statewide rural tourism marketing efforts at GetRuralKansas.org. This site goes live officially on June 1st, but you can see it now. As you look around, you’ll notice that the towns are marketing who they are and what they have to offer visitors, nothing more and nothing less. And it’s working.

In the United States, it’s that time of year when rural communities are going to their city councils and county boards, asking for a little help. This post might help you answer some of your politicans’ questions and concerns about supporting local tourism building efforts.

Let us know if your efforts this year are successful.

How do those of you in other parts of the world ask for help from your government?

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