Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Preserving and promoting heritage assets for rural tourism

Yesterday I was contacted by someone from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC to bring to my attention a special issue of the Forum Journal (Winter 2010) that focused on Heritage-Based Rural Development.

BC has an active Heritage Branch in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts and I have had the good fortune to work with many of their staff in the past. Efforts to bring together those in heritage preservation and tourism have been made in recent years as there is a growing recognition of the synergies that can happen when working together. Sometimes when blending people from different worlds – it is a good idea to focus first on common goals. I would like to propose in this blog, that those working on heritage tourism think a bit broader about how heritage can support rural development in general – not just through tourism. By following the suggestions and examples in the articles discussed above, the protection and promotion of heritage assets leads to the goals of many rural areas. For example heritage assets make communities more attractive to visitors, residents and businesses which can keep people in the community. It also invests in foundations of authenticity which can create places where people experience a “sense of place” (which is becoming difficult as all our cities begin to look alike).
So how do the journal articles suggest this happens – well I don't want to take away from your enjoyment in reading the articles – but here are a few highlights I gleaned. Based on two pilot projects (regional based) along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and in central Kentucky – James Lindberg’s article provides six principles for heritage based development including:

1. Use a regional approach
2. Protect historic authenticity
3. Nurture grassroots involvement and leadership
4. Forge strong partnerships
5. Be flexible, and
6. Make a long term commitment

Using these as guiding principles – they also propose six strategies for moving forward. I thought these were particularly useful for rural development:
1. Educate about the value of rural heritage
2. Conserve heritage assets
3. Encourage local entrepreneurship and the use of historic structures
4. Develop heritage tourism potential
5. Brand and market your regional identity
6. Advocate for public policies that support heritage-based rural development

So without spoiling your read, go and review the articles (they are short) as they point out many tips under each strategy. I couldn’t help but think about the many examples of heritage resources in BC that I have visited over the years that are in dire need of conservation before they can be of any use for tourism. Many rural residents are aware of these assets and value the sites, places and people that have established roots to the area. The state of many sites however is unfortunate – old buildings crumbling or being demolished for new developments. Once they are gone, and once the people that are connected to these places are gone – these heritage resources will be much more difficult, if not impossible to revitalize.
Canadians often say that Canada doesn’t have its own culture (which I adamantly disagree with). Perhaps it is time we learn from others – even within our own country (i.e. Quebec efforts around heritage preservation are excellent) about what our heritage amenities are and then prioritize them as key ingredients for rural development. We know they are there, and we should know by now the roadblocks that are preventing them from being restored and utilized – so now all we need are creative ideas on how to get there (which starts with being a priority). With so much emphasis on “tourism product development” going on, heritage resources must be incorporated into these discussions in ways that balance the mandates of protection and promotion.

I like to expose myself to the thinking and practices south of the 49th whenever I can. There is a collective understanding about rural tourism development in the USA that Canada can, and should, learn from. Universities have supported extension activity in tourism across the States for quite some time and clusters of active regions have demonstrated many promising practices. Luckily, I will get the opportunity for more interaction with folks by attending the Rural Tourism Conference in Mississippi October 25-27th. For others who want to attend a good conference on rural tourism, keep your eyes open for the next National Extension Tourism Conference as well.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Staycations benefit rural areas and the environment

Folks have probably heard about a new type of getaway called the "staycation". A staycation is a vacation one takes close to home, to enjoy the adventures in their own backyard.

Why are staycations growing in popularity? There are many reasons for this trend including:

1. We have a "been there, done that" generation that has travelled far more than any other generation before it. It is no longer unique to travel to Europe, Southeast Asia or Africa because so many others have done this. In tourism we call this phenomenon "mass follows class" which means that while a few intrepid tourists find unique places, they soon share their experiences leading to the flow of mass travellers after them. Tourism is an activity with incredible "social bragging rights", and these rights go up when others are less likely to have gone where you have travelled. So how does this lead to a staycation? Staycations are somewhat less common than they used to be and people are now more prone to explore what is in their own backyard.
2. Concerns about the carbon footprint of travel are also making people rethink international travel. While all travel produces carbon, air travel is becoming more scrutinized for its contribution to global warming. And beyond air travel, people are looking to invest in travel experiences that benefit places and people.
3. The experience of travel to and from destinations is becoming a hassle for many. Increased security measures, confusion about regulations, required passports, screening practices and add on taxes are common complaints of air travelers. These hassles are felt more so by people who have to travel for their work and leads many to want to avoid travel when they have leisure time.
4. The pace of society in both work and leisure time has created a need for people to "slow down". Many have tried to create space to be more slow by packing less into their schedule - including travel experiences.

As people look to stay closer to home for their vacations, rural areas that are developing tourism stand to benefit. In order to benefit however, rural areas need to become more visible to urbanites. This is not an easy task as many Canadians are becoming increasingly disconnected to the rural landscape and the amenities, communities and people within. At your next social gathering when someone asks you where you are going on your summer vacation - suggest some rural areas in your province and see if they know where you are talking about. I have done this often when I tell folks that I'd like to get to the Chilcotin this summer... I can see their blank stares that indicate they have no clue where I am talking about.

For those working in rural tourism - you may want to ask yourself if your area could be attractive to urbanites who want to staycation this year. What do you have that could help them slow down, stay close to home and explore, reduce their carbon footprint and experience reality in their own life? Chances are, there are many things that would suit staycationers. Now how can you raise awareness that your rural area is worth exploring? Work with other small communities in your region and think about targeting some promotions to nearby urban markets. Assemble some packages that leave room for lots of exploration and flexibility while making it easy for them to decide. And start a buzz about staycations within the industry to encourage organizations to work together to market BC to British Columbians, spur the rubber tire market and revitalize rural tourism efforts. The spin offs? Rural areas will see increased visitation, added exposure may lead some people to relocate to rural areas as residents or to start a new business and BC residents will become better ambassadors for the province because they will know about its amenities (and will pass it on to other visitors).

And for you - plan a staycation to a part of rural BC this year to experience something unique.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Historical week for BC tourism

  • This week was an historic one for rural BC and for the role of tourism in its diversification. The first BC rural conference was held at the South Thompson Inn just outside of Kamloops as part of the REDTREE project by Thompson Rivers University. I have been to many conferences over the years and am joining others in saying that this is one of the best ever held in BC. Why was it so great?

    The opportunities for learning were unlike any program I have seen assembled around tourism in BC - there were sessions on everything from sustainability, mountain bike trails, signage, product development and capacity building to Web tools, amenity migration and geocaching.

    The delivery was innovative - there were lots of workshops, activities, plenaries and plenty of time for networking.

    The venue was spectacular - the South Thompson Inn setting provided an intimate gathering spot and everyone remained on site to create space for networking and developing ideas. The staff was great and the food was fantastic (and local).

    The delegate list was diverse - the session had lots of rural operators, council members, aboriginal leaders, policy makers from federal and provincial agencies, field agents, academics, consultants, students and marketing associations. This provided a rich set of players to share ideas, realities and voices to the complex array of stakeholders involved in tourism development. And, no one audience was privileged in their links to tourism in the province. They came from all corners of BC and from outside the province including Alberta, Quebec, California, Sweden and Brazil!

    For me, the event was very special as it marked the realization of a vision that I shared with my colleagues in TRIP since 2006 when we learned that rural operators and leaders wanted a venue to get together to share and learn together. Watching people from all over the province shake hands, sit down together and learn from the wealth of knowledge around the venue was fantastic. I had the opportunity to reconnect with people we met on the road with our students, and I had the chance to meet new people like Anna Pollock and Joanne Steele whose work I have admired.

    One of the goals of TRIP was to develop a cluster of expertise and network around rural tourism in BC and it was so evident that we can collectively check that one off our list. Our partners were well represented in the event, and some of my closest colleagues and students who engaged in TRIP extension tours were all around and involved. This showed the follow through and commitment of the partnership to seeing our ideas through and in fact, we are all leaving inspired to do more... (keep posted for new ideas for a TRIP phase 2!).

    Congratulations to Rob Hood and his great team at TRU including Sydney Johnsen, Cynthia Schaap and all the great students. The organization was super and kept people engaged throughout. We truly had a great "experience". In particular though, when I talked about doing things using a rural lens, the team did many things to make the conference work for rural BC residents including:

    They invited them to the event
    They tailored the topics to suit their needs
    They created a travel subsidy to make it accessible
    They recognized that their time away from the community was valuable and ensured an action packed learning program
    They kept it in a rural setting
    They benefited a rural operator
    They used workshops to allow for engagement and learning
    They kept the speakers relevant to rural issues and realities
    They focused on the big picture facing rural BC
    They made room for socializing amongst delegates by having adventures, socials, bus outings, and plenty of networking time
    And probably many more.

    We are talking about the logistics for the next gathering and are committed to continue the opportunity. Keep posted, tell your contacts and register early because based on the success of this inaugural event - it will sell out super quick!

    PS - the adventure studies program offered a social opportunity on Wednesday night and my team was called the "Roper's" due to Miriam Schilling's abilities with a lariat in one of the activities. Our team photo includes Gavin McLelland (being caught), Miriam Schilling, myself, Victoria Simpson,Kimberly May, and Sara Weaver (Simone Carlysle-Smith was missing for a moment).