Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tourism: A Cautionary Tale

As an author of Lost Communities of Virginia, I recently participated in the Virginia Festival of the Book and had the opportunity to think about potential economic drivers to revitalize these places. Many of the places are isolated geographically, at the far ends of the state, or far out (and up) winding mountain roads. Despite the isolation, several of the places are reinventing themselves as tourist destinations. Paint Bank is a busy place on a weekend afternoon as people navigate the curvy roads to have lunch at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant, shop in the General Store, or spend the night at the Depot Bed and Breakfast. Which brings me to the question: is tourism an appropriate way to revitalize or preserve a community that has seen better days?

Tourism can be a great economic driver and far less disruptive than heavy industry. Once you've enticed tourists, they need a place to eat, a place to stay, things to do...all of those needs can result in a revitalized Main Street, new businesses, jobs, and more tourists. But, what does that do for the locals? Sure, they may be the business owners or workers, but what does tourism do to their way of life? Do they still have local shopping and commerce opportunities or have all the businesses become antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, and trendy restaurants? 

Virginia Tourism Corporation has several trail opportunities that are meant to help struggling areas of Southwest Virginia showcase their talents. Artists, crafters, and musicians are the focus of 'Round the Mountain and the Crooked Road, with the trails guiding visitors into rural areas to visit studios and attend events. That seems like a noble effort, but what if these efforts really take off? Part of the charm of the trails is the rural nature of the venues. How does that change if hundreds or even thousands of people start visiting these places? 

What does tourism do to the environment? If the tourism draw is a river, mountains, or the ocean, what happens when more people use the resources? More people can mean the need for more lodging and restaurants; beyond what the community's existing buildings can handle. What happens we tear down the old downtown or level the dunes to build a new multi-story hotel? We end up with Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach. Places that are tourist meccas today, but where the original character and charm that originally brought visitors has been lost. Is that what we really want when we attract tourists to rural areas?

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