Small Arizona Museum Is Changing the Way Towns Think About Tourism

PRESCOTT, Ariz., Feb. 10 /PRNewswire/ — This March 16-18, people from around the country, as well as Mexico and Canada, will descend on the charming mountainside community of Prescott, Arizona for several days of discussion about tourism. The federally funded “Civic Tourism” project, managed by Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, is challenging the way communities think about the travel and hospitality industry.

“Traditionally, we’ve mainly looked at tourism as economic development, which it certainly can be,” says project director Dan Shilling. “But Civic Tourism suggests the industry can also help towns preserve their built and natural environment, as well as their history and culture – what many call a sense of place.”

In that sense, Civic Tourism mirrors the popular theory of the Creative Economy, which says towns should invest in distinctive assets, like the arts and historic districts, to attract high-value employers. “We’re saying the same for tourism,” says Shilling. “Preserve your heritage and it will attract high-value visitors who stay and spend.”

Tourism programs like ecotourism and heritage tourism have made the same argument for years. Civic Tourism, says Shilling, is the next logical step. “We need to broaden the dialog. If you’re marketing a community’s sense of place, it makes sense to extend the tourism conversation to those most invested in that place – residents.”

The notion that tourism can be part of the solution to building healthy communities, instead of a force that spoils the things residents cherish, is catching on worldwide. “Some people will probably always complain that tourism changes towns, that it’s a problem; but we’re seeing in places like Australia and Ireland that communities can manage that change for the better,” Shilling says.

The March conference includes dozens of presenters from across the country, who will meet with tourism officials, city planners, preservationists, land use advocates, cultural practitioners, and others to discuss the new approach to tourism.

“I’m a thirty-year tourism professional,” says Mark McDermott, former director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. “What I and most of my colleagues have always done is market our communities to visitors, without giving much thought to enhancing the product for residents.”

What Civic Tourism asks communities to do, says McDermott, is create a healthy place for residents first, rather than focus on attracting strangers. “It’s a paradigm flip,” he says, “one that’s hard to grasp because historically the industry’s benchmark for success has always been how many people visited the community. We suggest they focus on doing better, not just more.”

The main “paradigm flip,” says McDermott, is thinking about tourism as a tool to serve the community, rather than the other way around. “The result is a better place for people who live there, a more interesting product for tourists, and an improved relationship between residents and the hospitality sector.”

Information about Civic Tourism is available at http://www.civictourism.org/ or 602-300-6694.

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