Sharlot Hall regional history museum in Prescott, Arizona

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Civic Tourism: Event 2006

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Civic Tourism can help
preserve historic towns

By Dr Dan Shilling, Project Director, Civic Tourism*

15 January 2006: Civic Tourism begins with what some consider an outlandish claim, which is that tourism, one of the largest industries in the world, could help communities preserve their quality of life. The industry’s argument generally ends with ‘economic development,’ but we’re suggesting tourism could help protect historic neighborhoods, save the environment, and preserve cultures – in addition to strengthening the economy. Does it always? No, and some people argue tourism does the opposite, that it ruins ‘sense of place,’ that it’s the problem. We’re suggesting tourism can be part of the solution.

Outside the box | Place as product | Extending the reach |

For example, Sharlot Hall Museum (Arizona, USA), the sponsor of the Civic Tourism project, could not portrait the region’s history as effectively as it does without tourists’ dollars. That’s true for many museums, parks, and other hometown assets. So, can tourism help protect the things we cherish? Yes. Does it always? No, but remember: the tourism industry, as an ‘industry,’ is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s still learning.

So, is Civic Tourism another exercise in whining about how tourism ‘ruined our town’? No, that approach only builds walls we’re trying to tear down. Or do we believe Civic Tourism is the only way to do hospitality? Of course not! It’s simply another tool to help diversify a town’s portfolio. What we do hope to do is foster a constructive dialog about how we can inspire public interest in an industry that has tremendous potential to change communities, at the same time we inspire in the industry a corresponding commitment to the place in which it works.

Outside the box
For years we have tried to create sucessful partnerships between tourism and ‘place-based’ groups – organizations and movements that preserve the cultural, natural, and built environments (museums, parks, historic preservation agencies). The partnerships tend to work when the players can operate outside their rhetorical boxes.

Tourism, for instance, is often caught in the ‘economic development’ box. Whenever the industry needs to defend itself it invariably falls back on jobs, bed taxes, and other financial incentives. Certainly tourism brings dollars, but nearly every other sector makes that argument, and surveys suggest many residents would forgo tourism’s economic benefits if they could ‘just have my old town back’. Civic Tourism encourages the industry to do better, not just more. The industry misses an opportunity by staying stuck in the economic development box, by not showing how tourism can help places preserve their character – an argument that connects to the values that resonate with citizens.

On the other side, the industry critics ought to get out of the tourism-ruins-towns box. There’s no social determinism that says inviting visitors to one’s community spoils the things we love. Can it? Yes. Does it have to? No. But that’s the point – communities have a choice. Rather than hold the industry at arm’s length, community stewards should help design a vision for tourism that’s as good for residents as it is for visitors.

Voices critical of tourism imply towns should put up walls to keep visitors out, because, oh my, look what happened to Santa Fe. The problem with that is that it’s not going to happen. Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, and it’s growing. It’s not a matter of if we do tourism, but how we do it.

That’s why we say to museums, parks, and others: be at the table. You are the product! The chamber of commerce is not the attraction. They’re marketers, and they rarely provide funding and direction to build or enhance products. I can’t make that clearer: we need to invest in product development, and that investment has to be both conceptual (what is the product?) and financial (how do we enhance it?). That’s what we mean by the project’s subtitle: “the poetry and politics of place” – the product and process of place-making. Talk of place as an economic stimulator is all around, particularly from the “creative economy” sector. Civic Tourism simply extends these discussions to hospitality.

Place as product
Study the history of place-based tourism, like eco- or heritage tourism, and you’ll find similar vocabularies and methodologies. They all begin with preservation; they’re all in the place-enhancing business, but rarely do we find them at the same table where tourism is concerned. But place is not just heritage, land, or buildings – it’s all three. Civic Tourism encourages an integrated notion of place, where these groups don’t interact with tourism in their usual piecemeal, episodic, project-by-project way, but where place becomes the project.

No doubt most towns already have the raw material for a place-based initiative, but sometimes we just need to get out of the way. As early 20th-century city planner Benton MacKaye said: “The job is not to plan, but to reveal.” Think of tourism in that vein; allow the product to reveal itself organically, rather than impose it artificially. That comes from privileging history, nature, and historic districts. The other thing place-making does is create a distinctive product. In the world of sales – and what are tourism campaigns if not advertisements? – differentiation is key; carving out a market niche is what successful companies do. If that’s the case, why bury your assets, why turn your town into Cookie Cutter, USA?

Something else this approach can do is to connect to visitors in a meaningful way. The tourism industry refers to ‘destinations’. We prefer ‘place’, and there’s a cavernous difference between those words. As Jim Quay said, “place is a destination with a story.” Destination implies: come, spend, leave – it’s a dot on the map, and it perpetuates drive-by tourism. Place, though, says: come, learn, get attached, spend, stay longer, leave – and return. It’s easy to see this attachment at, say, the Grand Canyon. How can towns think of themselves the same way? One answer is to think of place an experience. Consider Nike: they don’t sell shoes, you rarely see a sneaker in their ads. They’re an experience. Towns can do the same thing – through story.

As more Boomers retire, as Gen-Xers emerge from their Gordon Gecko cocoons, and as the so-called ‘Creative Class’ surfaces (the theory popularized by Richard Florida, which has huge implications for tourism), it’s unique experiences, not assembly-line settings, that will create this connection; and uniqueness is a by-product of the cultural, natural, and historic assets particular to a place.

Extending the reach
There’s one last topic, and that’s the how of the conversation – the ‘politics’ of place. The discussion about how towns ‘do’ tourism used to be a narrow one: the chamber, city, or convention and visitors bureau. When niches like ecotourism appeared the conversation often broadened to include other voices. The group still missing is the public, the people who live in the places the hospitality industry markets. Including residents is a natural evolution, just as we’ve seen the same thinking in government, journalism, philanthropy, education, culture, and other industries. Tourism is no different, and as this relatively new business matures we see more avenues for public input in the discussion of how one ‘does’ tourism – such as ‘geotourism or ‘community tourism’.

Civic engagement means doing more than talking at citizens; it means giving people who are often the most affected by the tourism industry’s decisions a voice in how their town is bundled as an attraction. In broadening the conversation, will the industry be criticized? Most likely, but tourism officials should be big enough to listen, they may learn something, and giving resident ownership in the conversation will help appease anti-tourism sentiments.

We’ve learned much about place and tourism over the last few decades, from movements like ecotourism, cultural tourism, and heritage tourism. Our goal is to integrate these and other approaches, add a strong dose of the public’s voice, and “use” tourism as a tool to build healthier communities. If effect, we encourage flipping two paradigms:

1) Use tourism to serve place (its preservation and maintenance), rather than using place to serve the tourism economy.
2) Build towns to benefit residents, rather than building towns to attract visitors.

Evidence suggests that towns, which focus on building a healthy place for residents will ultimately attract high-value visitors who want to experience livable communities. Conversely, towns that put too much emphasis on attracting tourists risk destroying place, and alienating residents.

A few discussions I’ve had end like this: “What’s your endgame?” We’ll be happy if it’s another way to think about tourism, and a broader cast of characters to participate in the conversation about place as a tourism product. We’re in the product business; this isn’t about marketing, but about re-articulating the thing we market; and most importantly, about creating the political will to advocate for appropriate product development.

We’ve finished a year of research, summits, town halls, and other community meetings, and we’ll share our findings – and continue the research – at a national conference in March. We invite you to join the conversation about how communities can think about tourism differently – from an industry that sometimes buries “place” to one that preserves it.

*Civic Tourism is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, and is managed by Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona. The project director, Dan Shilling, can be reached at or 602-300-6694. Visit the project website:

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