Study Shows Rural Tourism Is Economic Development Driver

by Joanne Steele on June 28, 2013

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!


1 forrest sprague July 29, 2013 at 5:47 am

Good Monday morning Joanne,

I enjoy reading your columns over my Saturday morning coffee, but I haven’t seen any of your posts since the last one in June. Hope all is alright with you and yours.

Forrest in Glenn County

2 Joanne Steele August 6, 2013 at 9:01 am

Hi Forrest,
Thanks for noticing! I’ve taken a short break this summer to “recharge my batteries” and gather some new material and ideas. Anything special to report from your area?

3 Jenny July 24, 2013 at 7:20 am

Thanks for the post. Having grown up in a small, one stoplight town I completely agree that smaller towns should be striving to find their niche and market it. The little communities are dying out and it’s important to maintain a little bit of a small town feel so you don’t get caught up in big city living. Thanks again.

4 Barbara Cross June 29, 2013 at 6:40 am

Good article and good points to ponder. Dunsmuir certainly is blessed with “selling points”. World class river for fishing, rafting, swimming, etc. A historic, charming train depot and Victorian downtown. Delightful old houses on up and down hills in a little town in a canyon. Superb restaurants that people happily drive an hour to frequent. Interesting people from all walks of life, some raised here and some, like me, retiring here, and all passionate about their town. Inexpensive housing and business costs. Check us out! Good place to live, retire, vacation, raise kids, and own a business. Many artists live her and a lovely new large gallery just opened. There is a feeling of progress and excitement in the air in Dunsmuir!
Barbara Cross

5 Joanne Steele June 30, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thanks Barbara! Dunsmuir has much going for it. I’ve been reporting Dunsmuir developments for a number of years now, and it continues to surprise me with the inventivness of the residents. Art fish are now flyiing from our lightposts – worth a stop to see. One has the question, “What’s UP with Dunsmuir?? woven into the design. My answer? Everything seems to be UP.

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