I don’t want to insult anyone. I mean it. I have been careless with my words before and later regretted it. I don’t mind saying what needs to be said or what might be unpopular, but I also don’t want to unnecessarily hurt anyone’s feelings. So it’s important that I separate the industry from the people when making this point. So here we go…
There are amazing people working in tourism. Not everyone of course, I have met some real twits in this job, but for the most part, I have found tourism professionals to be kind, creative, passionate, and community-minded. I wish them all good health and hangover-free mornings.
That part being dispensed with, I don’t believe tourism is an effective community improvement strategy. Remember, I just typed nice things above about all the tourism people so put down your pitchforks. This is what makes my work difficult. There are a lot of problems in this industry, but to point them out is to call out real people’s livelihood and that doesn’t feel good. But if I don’t say anything, am I complicit or hypocritical?
I want everyone working in tourism, except those twits I mentioned earlier, to still have a job and to have meaningful work they can be passionate about, but I believe communities would benefit a great deal if the nature of that work started to change. I am not suggesting a shift from tourism to accounting or anything drastic, but instead a shift from marketing to product development.
I see cities spend a lot of time marketing themselves to outsiders, but very little time working on themselves. I personally know some people that do the same, and honestly- I do not like those people. They tend to be shallow and struggle with self-esteem. These people have not put in the handwork it requires to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. They put up a good facade to reel you in, but behind the fancy curtain- it’s a mess.
There just aren’t any shortcuts in life. No one can achieve anything of substance in short order. Sure, a good haircut or a nice pair of shoes can make a person feel better, but it can’t hold a candle to getting physically fit and mentally fit. Those adornments are for show and they aren’t real substance. We all know fake people who rely on external appearances to cover what they haven’t accomplished. Those people may appear attractive in a photo, but what about the real substance people crave?
I know I have beat this cliche horse to death, but the growth that people truly value takes a long time. It takes a long time to achieve personal wellness and get in shape, it takes a long time to get educated, it takes a long time to become well read. And it takes a long time to revitalize a community.
To me, it feels like tourism is trying to find a shortcut. Marketing can’t come before product development. Now, I have certainly been to places where they have not made this mistake. There are communities that invested heavily in improving themselves and now are ready to do the tourism thing, but I have to be honest- these are few and far between.
Most places are trying to throw a party before cleaning up. A lot of these towns are on Tinder using some questionable filters. Marketing matters, but it’s hard to market a bad product and too many towns aren’t giving serious thought to the product. Also, why is the product only being marketed to outsiders? Why is it always ‘Visit ——‘ and not ‘Love Where You Live’? Locals have money too, and they have a vested interest in their town improving.
Cities and towns are human habitats. They are the places people live, where people make their lives. There is nothing more important than the conditions of the places we inhabit. They are not and should never ever be treated like some sort of gimmick. Our communities do not need a damn theme- it’s an insult to the people that call a place home.
All the organizations involved in community development- tourism, economic development, revitalization, etc. should shift their focus to resident satisfaction. Resident satisfaction should be the metric by which we measure success. If a city is experiencing loads of investment and packed with visitors, but no one living in town is happy, should this really be considered a success?
What if everyone in town was pleased as rum punch, yet tourism dollars weren’t pouring in? I think things would be okay. I imagine the town would be getting along fine. Visitors do not make a community better, they spend money. Those are very different things. We have to stop equating every dollar that arrives in a community as some sort of success. Money spent at the Holiday Inn does not improve the community, and money spent at Panera does not improve the community. Improving the community improves the community.
Visitors do not improve the lives of residents and plenty of people living in tourist destinations would argue they make it worse. I would suggest with a great deal of certainty though, that improving conditions for residents would have a positive impact on tourism and economic development without even trying.
It’s about doing the real work of self-improvement. The types of projects that will lift local self-esteem and make people proud of the place they call home. Tourism organizations don’t need to disband by any means but should begin to look at what can be done to make the product more appealing. In shifting a focus to improving the lives of residents, they would simultaneously be creating a product that is significantly easier to sell and more appealing to visitors.
The truth is, if people love the place they live, all the other pieces will fall into place.