In Defense of Tourism

Due to the trend of accessibility in travel, it’s no surprise that it has become one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world, contributing over a trillion U.S. dollars to the country’s gross domestic product each year. This influx in cash also drags a bad reputation along with it- one of selfish capitalism, urbanization, and tacky families in matching tropical button-ups and khakis. As this week marks my first year serving as the Director of Tourism of a mountainous county in Central Washington, I thought I would note how my perspective has shifted on the pros and cons of this multifaceted topic. 

Many people think tourism is just putting a brand on an area and then capitalizing on it, but I believe that tourism is bolstering the things that make a place loved and having the selfless heart to watch that discovery continue outside of our own experience. I’ve always been fascinated with a sense of “place,” both metaphorically and physically, traveling to diverse destinations and asking myself how each one made me feel. It wasn’t until my experience in digital marketing merged with a love for community that I discovered the beauty in destination marketing- in discovering the best of a region and sharing it.

Tourism starts with promotion or highlighting what makes a destination unique and worth-visiting to influence the decision making of potential travelers. This starts by learning about the local culture, history, various industries, and micro-niches, to highlight what our worldview might cover- touching it all and inviting anyone to experience it. 

It’s true, tourism is often followed by development to handle the pressure of visitors, but the truth is our overall population increases every year regardless. Traffic increases, grocery store lines stretch down isles, and construction sites expend 24-hour crews to keep up with the natural demand of the many people on our earth. Sure, tourism plays a part in exposed secret spots and crowded beaches, but acting like it’s the sole reason why the places we love might have changed over time is simply delusional. The second half of tourism is helping manage tourists- what would happen if our national parks didn’t have pull-off areas and designated trails to experience? How would people see and photograph our nation’s most grand landscapes without stomping all over the natural vegetation?

Tourism does not always equal tacky urbanization
In more rural areas, highlighting the components of a community while developing things to do doesn’t always mean destroying the natural elements. An example of this can be found on the western side of Washington state. The Vance Creek Railriders developed a 13-mile railroad ride that winds through Shelton’s farmlands and forests, giving visitors an authentic Washington experience while utilizing an otherwise abandoned railroad. 

Balancing impact
“It’s inevitable,” can be a heavy excuse, especially for professionals in this industry. I believe that when we do anything that impacts others, even if it will happen regardless, it’s important for those of us in tourism to get involved in the communities we may be causing harm to and help offset our impact in the ways we can. This could be in the form of sitting on boards and committees of organizations that help to preserve the environment, volunteering in different parts of the community, educating travelers on how to recreate responsibly, or helping to identify areas of improvement on an infrastructural level, ensuring that these important areas remain protected and maintained, as opposed to being destroyed over time.

Community advantages
Tourism provides a source of employment for us Americans, contributing to over 5 million jobs each year in the US alone. Here in Washington, tourism is our fourth-largest industry generating over $21.4 billion in annual revenues and providing $1.8 billion in state and local taxes. On an even more local level, the travel economy helps allow the american dream to be more accessible as the need for new businesses and services increases. Vacationers from larger cities help support small businesses in rural communities, putting food on the table and establishing opportunities for families that trickle-down over generations. Tourism can even enhance and continue the feeling of pride that locals feel towards their communities and traditions- sharing their stories and culture, and in turn, keeping them alive.

Tourism has long been esteemed by world leaders as a driver of peace and security through understanding, and a catapult of civic pride by encouraging cultivation and sharing of local customs, food, and traditions. Development is imminent, and I believe we can view tourism through a lens of opportunity; connecting us to the places we visit and the communities we call home.

What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of tourism? 

Madison Ford

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