How rural communities can increase tourism
A rural tourism forum recently held in Toowoomba, Qld highlighted the numerous challenges facing regional and rural communities in gaining benefit from tourism - but also practical things rural communities can do to attract and serve visitors.
The University of Southern Queensland's Institute for Resilient Regions and the South West Regional Economic Development Board (SWRED - a group of southwest Queensland councils) shared their recent research findings on how local economies can gain greater benefit from tourism in the forum we attended together with councils, regional tourism organisations, local tourism organisations, state tourism and development departments and others from across southern Queensland from the outback to the coast.
What the hosts and attendees shared was applicable to regional and remote communities right across Australia.
Practical actions your regional community can take today
The Institute and SWRED have published an incredible and simple guide of practical actions rural and regional communities can take to orient their communities towards tourism, covering tourism product audits, marketing, social media use, customer service, product development, signage, collaboration, diversification, events, and measuring and evaluating tourism.
Download and print this guide, grab a highlighter and a cuppa, and get ready to start taking notes your community can take immediate action on.
One thing the day highlighted for us was the numerous, multi-layered challenges facing rural communities, including being swayed by the ever-changing winds of politics.
After you read the challenges and suggestions for solutions presented below, we would love to hear your thoughts on what you see as the solutions, and who is going to take the lead on driving real change.
Opportunities for regions
- Tourism is a key emerging industry
- Regions have great history, people, wildlife and landscapes and local leadership and organisations
- Even if you feel you don't have an iconic attraction in your town, the outback is an iconic attraction in itself
- The mainstay of rural tourism is grey nomads, who not only make an economic but also a social contribution to outback communities
Challenges for regions
- Diversification from grey nomads - How will the next generations travel?
- Many kinds of businesses don't see themselves involved in tourism and many businesses are there to be, not to make money so they are not proactive
- There are often few activities for visitors in rural towns - a static museum, Main St shops, a cafe
- Infrastructure and facilities might be lacking
- It's difficult to attract investment
- It's difficult to compete on cost, especially flights
- Development projects need to happen in parallel - e.g. infrastructure, food, activities and accommodation
How can communities orient themselves to tourism?
- Care for appearance and presentation, including Council creating welcoming streetscapes
- Maintain opening hours - being closed leads to negative comments on social media
- Recognise the value of tourism
- Co-opetition - collaborate to bring tourists into the region rather than competing with other local businesses
- Join in tourism networking meetings
- Address businesses that bring the town down - like the pub with poor customer service
- Leverage events
- Shift attitudes away from e.g. Sundays with nothing open, kitchens closed at lunch time, or an event in town with all businesses closed so everyone can go to the event
- Identify current and target markets (What do our visitors want/need?)
- Audit existing marketing - Is it reaching target markets?
- Use social media in a savvy way
- Provide maps, itineraries and signage
- Rationalise marketing - are we getting the best bang for our buck?
- Maintain crucial infrastructure (have the petrol station open, mobile phone coverage, and food available)
- Attractive appearance and warm welcome
- Current road condition info (tourists don't mind dirt roads but they need to know current road conditions)
- Basic tourism infrastructure - accommodation that can sleep a coach-load; something more than static museums for families with kids
- Leverage key major attractions
Tourism Product, Attractions, Activities
- Product development
- Loops and itineraries
- Develop local sites, activities and tours
- Be RV friendly
Communication and Engagement
- Make the most of VICs (visitor inspiration centres)
- Coordination between VICs
- Local awareness of activities (frontline businesses like pubs need to be informed of what is on in town)
- Do feasibility studies for major investments
- Plan to attract new investment by planning co-funding
- Use alternative business models (e.g. community-owned enterprises like a motel or a café (like a community owned bank)
- Engage youth
- Things need to happen in parallel
- Local drivers/champions
- Positive business culture
- Showing evidence of tourism's economic value
- Continuity of effort
key issues for progress in rural tourism
The Institute for Resilient Regions summed up the concluding discussion of the Rural Tourism Forum with these notes on the key issues around progress in rural tourism:
- Have a consumer-led focus
- Understand your customers
- Be relevant to consumer priorities
- Develop tangible targets for tourism development
- A lack of data on consumer behaviour inhibits initiatives
Community Collaboration and Leadership
- Increase local awareness of the value of tourism
- Local champions are needed
- Grant programs that allow coordinated development of tourism rather than just one-off support for particular activities are needed
Product Development & Mentoring
- Product development should include experiences and activities (coherence)
- Accessible sites and facilities
- Find ways for indigenous and non-indigenous interests to collaborate
- Tourism facilities and priorities need to be included in council planning
- Operators need guidance, mentoring and support
- Coherent communication of tourism experiences and activities
- Events for community mobilisation as a region
- Find the whole vision together – the story and share this (media alignment)
- Be aware of cross-cultural differences of international visitors
Role of Local Government
- Take ownership of tourism ourselves instead of leaving the responsibility for tourism to local government
- Deal with issues like being ‘RV friendly’
- Don't ignore sustainability – social and economic
- Celebrate small successes - celebrate
- Lobby to change one-way car hire fees
What do you see as solutions to the challenges facing regional communities in attracting tourists?
Who needs to take the lead on driving change?
Our takeaway, combined with our experience working with rural councils, is that councils need mentoring on destination development to identify the big picture solutions that will help them not to waste money and energy on piecemeal activities.
Contact us if you are looking for support at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0439 192 193.
Read the accompanying blog post which summarises the thoughts of the rural tourism experts who attended the forum.