Tourism without tears

tourism without tears

“Cultural tourism is concerned with a country or region’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of the people in those geographical areas, the history of those people, their art, architecture, religion(s), and other elements that helped shape their way of life.” — Adapted from Wikipedia

Because the impacts of tourism are intertwined with so many different aspects of a society, economists find it notoriously difficult to deal with, particularly for the purpose of differentiating good tourism from bad. The studies economists generate should be looked on with great skepticism, especially if they are paid for by those with a vested interest in the outcomes. Since tourism is the fastest-growing major industrial sector in the world economy, however, there’s no excuse for ignoring it.

Despite its extraordinarily rich culture and considerable experience with tourism, the Hudson Valley has only rarely lived up to its potential for the kind of tourism development that substantially raises local incomes while celebrating the integrity of the region’s resources. It’s a wonder, in fact, that shortsighted land-use decisions, sloppy marketing and foolish boosterism have not entirely extinguished the region’s tourism potential. Economic input-output models show tourism as having the potential to be the leading industry in the region. A more thorough appraisal of this potential seems to me essential. How do we get there from here?


One doesn’t often read locally about finding the fit between a community and the kind of tourism that might be appropriate to it. In any community that takes pride in itself, this conversation is essential. The National Trust for Historic Preservation argues correctly that tourism done right has to make a community a better place to live as well as a better place to visit. “Celebrating a community’s heritage also instills pride in residents,” its website notes. “It is critical to balance the needs of residents and visitors and respect the carrying capacity that a community has to accommodate tourism so that everyone benefits.”

We certainly haven’t heard this kind of discussion in this year’s simpleminded debates about casino gambling in various locations in the Hudson Valley, have we?

It’s not complicated. We should go after the kind of tourism where visitors stay longer, spend more money, don’t trash the place and have a great time. Various kinds of tourism experiences are a better fit than others. It seems to me that Ulster County should focus on historic, environmental, agricultural, arts, and perhaps recreational tourism. We also need to build the unique local events which individual communities have developed. This network, which constitutes our best fit, is sometimes grouped around the rubric “heritage tourism.”

The National Trust defines heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past.” Heritage tourism can include cultural, historic and natural resources. For us, the goal is to make a good living out of celebrating who we are and where we are. Guests, surprising to some, seem perfectly willing to appreciate what we’ve got. It’s we who lack the confidence to show our pride.

The National Trust makes several good supporting arguments. Heritage tourism helps make historic preservation economically viable by using historic structures and landscapes to attract and serve travelers. Heritage tourism can be an attractive economic revitalization strategy, especially as studies have consistently shown that heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money than other kinds of travelers. As an added bonus, a good heritage tourism program improves the quality of life for residents as well as serving visitors.


Where will our guests come from? That’s obvious, too. The largest proportion will come from the New York City metropolitan area, two hours’ travel away. International tourists, who arrive at the New York airports by the tens of millions annually, will be the second largest segment. And other domestic tourists will constitute the third largest market segment.

Tourism development consists of more than marketing, which is what we do now. Hoping for a good return from a full page in The New York Times is not the end-all. What we need is a cultural transformation that will sustain the transmission of our most deeply held values to outsiders through pride, education and training.

Not too many places are up to that task. But then again not too many people have what we have.

In the past 40 years, training for the hospitality and leisure sectors has evolved. Students have been taught a bewildering array of management skills. They’ve learned the polite buzz words. Academics have been found to teach them. The flow of books, scholarly articles and professional papers has increased.

In the 1980s there was caution, as there should have been, about the value of pushing tourism. Results depended on who was paying for the studies. “Community decisions over tourism often involve debates between industry proponents touting tourism’s economic impacts (benefits) and detractors emphasizing tourism’s costs,” economist Daniel J. Stynes wrote. “Sound decisions rest on a balanced and objective assessment of both benefits and costs and an understanding of who benefits from tourism and who pays for it.”

Douglas C. Frechtling, author of a chapter in a notable 1994 tourism tome, came to a similar conclusion. “If there were any doubts about the importance of measuring tourism’s economic impact, the myriad of studies available on the topic should remove them,” he wrote. “But there have been too many divergent techniques employed owing more to the imagination of the designer than to the reality they attempt to measure.”

The local studies have kept on coming. Some of them have been quite contemporary. For instance, last October HR&A Advisors pumped out a New York City study estimating that Airbnb, the rapidly growing accommodations sharing company, had “generated $632 million in economic activity” in the year ending July 2013 in New York City and “supported” 4580 jobs. Airbnb visitors stay longer than hotel guests and do more non-hotel spending. Hotels and motels, however, still accommodate 99 per cent of gusts. As far as I know, no definitive study exists of Airbnb-type activity in the other direction – the number and kind of the plentiful domestic Hudson Valley B&Bs and other locations offering guest accommodations.

Successful multi-destination tourism — the relationships among high-quality venues and events — is not just numbers on a map. It requires a degree of solidarity that goes beyond selling. If I may dare say so, it requires collective pride in what a region has and is. How can we expect others to appreciate what we ourselves do not celebrate?

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