The tourism industry ranks third in the global market after fuel and chemical industries. Even while facing the challenges of COVID-19, it has proven itself to be economically resilient — particularly in rural areas. Tourism creates jobs and expands local infrastructure that supports a wide variety of businesses. Still, it also presents new challenges to small towns, many of whom are turning to the practice of sustainable tourism. The United Nations defines the reflective practice of sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, while addressing the needs of visitors and the host community.” This movement is fast becoming a foundational support system for economic planning.
The contrast from sustainable tourism to mass-marketed tourism is distinct. While sustainable tourism emphasizes and supports local authenticity, mass-marketed tourism is targeted to attain volume, spawns venues like theme parks and chain stores, and will eventually destroy what initially made a location attractive to tourists and residents, to begin with. The sustainable tourism approach promotes individual, homegrown elements ideal for promoting the values, local attributes, and quality of life found in small towns. It is a global practice that incorporates many sub-elements, such as responsible tourism (encouraging tourists to act with respect), eco-tourism (emphasizing protection of the natural surroundings), and agricultural tourism (consisting of farm tours and related agricultural events).
Ultimately, sustainable tourism should be integrated into thoughtful local economic development plans. An inventory of local assets that a given place has to offer, including all-natural, recreational, cultural, and historical attractions, should be carefully considered. Sometimes just boosting the number of visitors in the absence of solid planning can lead to unwanted results. If local facilities and natural areas become overwhelmed, residents can suddenly find themselves crowded out of their own backyard. It is paramount that everyone in the community understands that sustainable tourism can preserve and protect what is special and unique about an area.
Every place has its own unique story, an amalgam of history, people, and resources to preserve and celebrate. Small towns and rural settings can often provide refuge in an increasingly populated world. They are viewed as a respite by visitors who can enjoy the star-filled sky, untainted by city lights, and they promote opportunities to get up close and personal with nature. Gentrification efforts unwittingly change the character of rural areas and can spoil environments for locals and visitors alike. Managing a detailed long-term view of the effects on communities and considering the negative impacts of tourism are vital to maintaining the charm that small towns offer.
Communities can learn from one another. Sharing information and experiences between small towns can help them adapt to changing environments. Many rural areas share a common need to expand and diversify their tourism efforts. Whether tourism is new to the area or is simply underdeveloped, the industry offers many opportunities for economic evolution. While unchecked mass tourism can be both destructive and unsustainable, incorporating well-managed sustainable tourism into economic planning can improve the local economy and preserve the quality of life for residents of the community for the long term.