Taking stock of rural tourism

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Is tourism a boon for local economies or is it only more people and traffic? With the Growing Rural Tourism Conference in Camrose coming this February 23 to 25, we are taking a look at tourism’s place in rural Alberta.

Can tourism really help rural communities?

Tourism Development Officer and ag-tourism expert, Brenda Hanson certainly believes so.

“Tourism creates jobs and encourages local development and investment, so yes it can help rural communities strengthen and diversify their economies,” says Hanson. “Rural Alberta has so much to offer visitors, especially for those that are seeking authentic experiences off the beaten track.”

These visitors, also known as ‘cultural explorers’ account for 12 per cent of global markets and want to immerse themselves in the culture, people and settings of the places they visit. So while some people may not want to see ‘strangers in their midst,’ there are plenty of people willing to pay for those down-home country experiences that rural Alberta communities can offer.

Together, we are doing something about it

That’s why Alberta’s Tourism Framework recognizes that investing in the development and marketing of rural experiences is part of the formula to meet our goal of growing tourism in Alberta from $7.4 billion to $10.3 billion by 2020. Niche markets with potential in rural areas include ag-tourism, eco-tourism, Aboriginal tourism and seasonal events. For example, Alberta Open Farm Days is an ag-tourism event with lots of potential for rural communities as it saw the number of visits to host farms double in its second year. For a quick overview about Open Farm Days watch this video, or you can get the inside scoop at this year’s Growing Rural Tourism Conference.

The Rural Economic Development Action Plan also supports tourism and culture-based business opportunities in rural communities. The plan points to the success of the Town of Cochrane and area that built and promoted a cluster of cultural amenities, heritage sites and businesses, including MacKay’s Ice Cream shop, to create a day-long adventure for visitors. It also gives the example of Sunrise Farm, where a passion for the environment and growing wholesome foods turned the farm into an eco- and ag-tourism operation that brings in 150 to 200 people a year, from as far away as Australia, Pakistan and China.

Collaboration among regions is also supporting rural tourism growth in the province, with groups like the Canadian Badlands Tourism and the Alberta Northern Rockies Tourism Alliance. Today, there are many more rural communities now on board the tourism train, demonstrated by the 21 opportunities across Alberta presented at the Tourism Investment Forum back in November.

The future of rural tourism

Of course Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is tourism. Tourism, we say, is not a sector but a group of sectors that affect the experience of visitors. Hospitality and accommodation, transportation, retail, food services and cultural industries are all important to a healthy tourism environment in addition to local attractions. So any business, large or small, can contribute to building the local tourism economy.

The Growing Rural Tourism Conference understands this, and is encouraging upstart tourism businesses to develop new products or experiences with its Entrepreneurship Challenge. Yes, there is prize money as well as valuable feedback from tourism industry experts. Small tourism business can also get up-to-date information on small business programs, services and regulations in Alberta through smallbusiness.alberta.ca. They can also connect with a business advisor at The Business Link toll-free at 1-844-422-7705.

Moreover, it’s the local residents that benefit from a healthy local tourism industry, not just economically with jobs and development, but with an increased quality of life. With more things to do, a community many become a more attractive place for people to live.

Yes, there are limits to tourism’s benefit to a community. Tourism is not the final answer by any means, and it takes shared commitment and collaboration among many to succeed. Ultimately though, tourism is a must for any community wishing to grow.

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