Stop Replying on Small Town Tourism to “Save” Rural Communities
Her haughty demeanor fell away and she looked me straight in the eye for the first time, “Do not allow your land to become the only way for you to survive.” My heart fell to my stomach and I told her I was doing my best.
I never learned the name of the Navajo woman I spoke to at Antelope Canyon. It was a rushed conversation as I was holding up the ticket line and cars and tourists were pouring in around us. But, it is a conversation that I will never forget. I looked into the eyes of a woman who knew what was becoming of the land that she loved. To her, that land was sacred, and yet she was backed into a corner and could do nothing to protect it.
We are told that small town tourism, after all, is meant to save us all.
Tourism will save rural America. We hear it all the time, “the decline of rural America”, “how to save rural America”, “the Rural American Crisis.” But, nobody seems to care about what that means for local residents. No one is talking about the importance of a well-rounded economy and how rural areas, especially in Utah, are already lopsided. Rural communities have more economic dependence in tourism than any other industry.
And yet, we continue to push small town tourism. It is an issue on a local level as well as state and national. In my small area, an Economic Development Specialist was asked about the difference between tourism and economic development and they were quoted answering, “There is none.” I nearly fell out of my chair.
A Tourism Economy is Not a Healthy Economy
This morning, as I logged into Facebook, I was greeted with another article about rural development. This article featured Moab and its housing crisis. Essentially, Moab is reported as having a hard time staffing important jobs like hospital staff and the police force because there is nowhere to live. Houses are too expensive and they are rapidly running out of space to build.
Meanwhile, no less than five new hotels are currently being built. Tourists are pouring in like the end is near and Moab is the only safe place. The sewer system can barely keep up. And yet, Moab and the State of Utah continue to advertise the area throwing more than $2.3 million dollars into promoting the area each year.
Regardless of the fact that the land is suffering, that the roads cannot hold the amount of traffic, that the sewer system is being overwhelmed, growing tourism in Moab continues to be a top priority. In 2017 more than 46% of Moab’s job force labored in the tourism industry compared with the 11% of Utah’s total workforce.
Moab has found itself between a desert and desperation. Much like the Navajo woman from Antelope Canyon they have created an economy that is dependant upon selling the land the survive. They are rapidly outgrowing what their natural resources are capable of supporting and with almost half of your jobs and businesses depending on those visitors and that exploitation to survive, how do you fix it?
How do you backtrack two decades of mismanagement and lack foresight? And most importantly, how do you fix it with crushing the economy that relies so heavily upon it all?
Do not allow your city to end up in this situation, stuck between survive and land exploitation. Speak up and be a part of your city’s future. You city needs voices like yours.
Planning for our Future
Moab should be a cautionary tale for rural communities everywhere. Watching this unfold first hand is part of why we created Small Town Hub. We are on a mission to help communities avoid these problems. We want your city to prevent them before you wake up one morning to find all the houses turned into AirBNBs (forcing up housing costs), twice as many tourists as residents, and an economic disaster with locals on the losing end.
I have been asked to sit on a Rural Tourism Panel at Congressman John Curtis’s Rural Business Summit this fall. There I hope to help share the value of well-controlled and targeted tourism. Our rural business owners are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. While tourism can be a nice “cherry on top” of a diverse economy, we should never disregard our business owners, to think that is the only way they can survive.
Small Town Hub believes that tourism, done correctly, can enhance a city and offer an economic boost. However, we do not believe in one-size-fits-all tourism. We work with our cities teaching three directives:
- Every tourist is NOT the tourist for your rural community
- A city should not have to change who they are to accommodate tourism
Tourism will not single-handedly save your economy
I care too much about small, rural communities to watch them walk into the same issues that places like Moab and Page currently face. With the internet today, there is no reason to pigeon hole our businesses into the tourism industry. They are capable of so much more. Helping them learn how to leverage what is available to them is so important. It is much more important than losing what we love for the almighty tourist dollar.
Contact Small Town Hub. See how our Hub Program can guide your rural community’s economic growth through the trap of tourism and onto a stable economic foundation.
Small Town Hub