Systems are tricky and direct interventions often fail. Place-based tourism offers an indirect approach.
Miriam Beard “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Tourism is organized around infrastructure which often seems almost separate from a real place, with hotels, convention centers, tourism attractions, tourism “districts” that could be anywhere. At the same time, place-based tourism can provide solid, high ground from which to start improving places and its resources can grow over time. But the tourism industry almost never drives such changes. It takes the involvement of government and of citizens to make tourism a force for creating a better community. No place should settle for less.
Tourism organizations are usually set up to market and measure how tourism is doing “putting heads in beds.” A longer view, the responsibility of improving a place for visitors and residents, is out of sync with an industry whose most important measure of success is nightly occupancy and average daily rate. In this respect tourism is like other processes in our economy: the very short term point of view, measuring immediate results (whether in hotel occupancy or stock prices) drives out attention to a longer time-frame.
The tourism industry is often too impatient to appreciate the work or the benefits of place development. When the question of how to improve a destination comes up, the tourism industry moves straight to direct intervention: support a new attraction, expand a meeting facility, or support a major event. Yet it is our experience that tourism can be a tool for the betterment of the whole community, and tourism benefits.
Our first test was in New Orleans where we developed the leisure tourism program and where the industry tripled in size in the first ten years. We worked to address the entire place system, beginning with beliefs, like the tourism industry belief that no visitors would come in the summer (it’s too damned hot). But other cities are hot in the summer as well, and New Orleans has air conditioning and other compensations for the heat, still they still felt New Orleans had a special problem. Eventually we traced the belief back more than one hundred years, when yellow fever killed a lot of people in the summer—and those with means escaped to other climes. The belief that New Orleans was unlivable in the summer had taken root and the prophecy that no one would come was self-fulfilling, since little or no promotion was being done to bring them. We managed an initial promotion by bartering empty hotel rooms. It worked, and the reluctance to market in the summer vanished overnight. So the belief that no one would come in the summer was a habit, and had only the flimsiest hold on people. But it still did its damage until confronted.
In place-based tourism you build tourism by inviting visitors to love what you love about your place, by enhancing the qualities of place that are magnetic for visitors, and changing for the better aspects of your place that are stagnant. It takes a collaborative, systems approach (not one where the mayor calls the shots for pet projects any more than tourism does). Bringing people together around their shared love of a place is a powerful form of social capital—which is as important in healthy places as human capital and financial capital. Combine the magic of love of place with a system analysis, a future picture, and an agile planning process resulting in new system strategic alignment and you will get outsized results.
In places, there are many points of intervention in the system, where you can begin a process of improvement. An area of deep conflict is one such intervention point. A necessary “reform’ (a police department or a school district) is another. Or a place could decide to focus on creating new amenities (parks and paths, libraries or museums). And for each community these areas, ripe for improvement, are well known; though what the right course of action is may be of some debate. But the problem is that a focus on a single component (or cluster) of a place won’t generalize and may not even work to improve what is targeted. Because everything interacts with everything, and because of how systems resist change, a change in one thing, if it is achieved, is unlikely to generalize to the entire place.
Successful systems intervention process sets up interventions in a number of areas in the place system, which start their own transformations.
Image caption left to right: Mt. Humphrey’s Peak, Pennsylvania back road, Creole drummer, Sentinel tree at Pine Creek Gorge