Place-based tourism: a growth industry in rural PA

Place-based tourism: a growth industry in rural PA

Last month we held a workshop for county commissioners from the Pennsylvania Wilds before our big annual awards dinner. Speakers from state and federal agencies that serve the region’s rural communities highlighted their funding programs.

I was asked to do a 15-minute overview of the PA Wilds effort to kick things off. It’s not easy summing up 13 years of work by dozens of partners in a few minutes, so I focused on the special role of counties and then on results – what did statistics say about tourism growth in each county?

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (in units)

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (in units)

I do a lot of grant writing for the PA Wilds effort so I know first-hand that county involvement is a key way we demonstrate local-buy in. Another way is through private-sector involvement; for instance, that we have 170 small businesses and nonprofits participating in the Wilds Cooperative of PA program, dozens more tying into the brand, and larger corporations contributing to the cause.

Why does local buy-in matter? Because major funders – state and federal governments, national foundations, corporate partners – want to invest in a place that invests in itself. They want to see the big regional strategies, but equally as important, they want to know we’ve got skin in the game.

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (millions)

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (millions)

County involvement helps demonstrate this. Back when the PA Wilds effort first began, the region’s 12 counties signed a ground-breaking Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement (try saying that five times fast), the largest geographically of its kind in PA. This created the PA Wilds Planning Team, to this day a core piece of the PA Wilds organizational structure. A few years later, county commissioners across the region helped shepherd the PA Wilds work from the Democratic administration it was officially born under into the incoming Republican administration when they passed a resolution at CCAP conference about its importance.

County planners make up the core of the Planning Team; they are joined by dozens of organizations from across the Pennsylvania Wilds with a stake in nature and heritage tourism development. The group meets every other month to guide and shape the landscape work. It is the force behind the PA Wilds Champion Awards; the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship and its related mini grant programs; and current efforts to launch a regional façade grant program for small business, to name a few of its projects.

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (millions)

Tourism Economy Impacts by County (millions)

Each county also has the opportunity to contribute to the PA Wilds work through its Destination Marketing Organizations – visitor bureaus – which help lead and implement regional marketing strategies, another pillar of the landscape work. So what do the statistics say about all this time and energy so many of us have invested in growing our region’s nature and heritage tourism industry? Visitors spend an estimated $1.7 billion annually in the Pennsylvania Wilds, according to the latest statistics, released last week from the state tourism office.

Tourism is notoriously hard to track, and the statistics, in my mind, are always flawed. These, for example, can’t break out what travel happened because of Marcellus Shale versus someone who came here to hunt or cycle or paddle the West Branch or the Wild & Scenic Clarion or Allegheny Rivers.

Undoubtedly they miss other connections, too; for example, manufacturers or producers who have strong and growing ties to tourism but whose employment data get counted in other industries. Things are a lot more connected, the lines more blurred, today than they used to be, but economic data is still collected in silos.

Tourism Economy Impact by County (millions)

Tourism Economy Impact by County (millions)

So it is what it is. The Tourism Economics reports, released annually by the state tourism office, are still some of the best stats we have. I’ve been following them since 2009, the year after I started with the PA Wilds. And over that time, what they’ve shown is growth – in every county of the Pennsylvania Wilds, across every category – visitor spending, employment, income from employment, taxes in state and local coffers. For any single year a particular county’s numbers may go up or down, but overall the trend is up – in some cases, way up.

Tourism can’t solve all of rural PA’s economic challenges, but it is a growing part of our rural economy. And place-based tourism development, like we’re doing in the Pennsylvania Wilds, has the added bonus of improving quality of life for the people who live here. That may sound cliché, but if you live in a rural place you know how hard it can be for new products and services to take root. When an outfitter starts offering kayaking and backpacking trips, or a restaurant brewpub opens in town, or a volunteer group helps build a world-class mountain-biking course, or the state opens a premier conservation education facility – these are amenities and experiences (all real examples, by the way) that rural residents can and do enjoy as much as any visitor. And they make a big difference to families who live here. Not to mention help our region’s manufacturers and other larger employers attract and retain the talent they need to continue to grow their companies.

Now if we can just find a way to measure and track all that.

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