Can Tourism Save the Countryside?

Backyard Tourism

Wow, this place is jumping! At 5:30 pm, my wife and I thought we’d walk down our gravel road and have a quiet glass of wine and some nibbles at the local winery last Saturday. We forgot about the effect of unseasonably warm weather on a three-day weekend.

Perhaps 200 people filled the cavernous tasting room and overflowed onto the deck. A decent band was pumping out standards, couples were dancing, groups at tables were partying, well-tippled young women were improvising a wobbly circle dance, children were scampering about underfoot, and everyone was having a whale of a time.

Saturday scene inside the Creek's Edge Winery, Loudoun County, Virginia. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Snapshot of the Saturday scene inside the Creek’s Edge Winery, Loudoun County, Virginia. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Quite a change for our quiet hamlet of Taylorstown, here in the remaining rural part of Loudoun County, Virginia. Years had passed since we lost our last surviving retail business, a beloved but struggling general store. The nearest shops and restaurants were 20 minutes distant.

Then came Creek’s Edge winery. Now, wielding our own glasses, we discovered this evening’s crowd was a mix ranging from locals to tourists—weekenders from Washington, D.C., some 50 miles away.

Is catering to city-weary visitors a way to help protect or even improve rural character? Yes—at a cost, of course.

Rural Tourism Helps

Tourism can work even if the nearby city isn’t all that big. The counties eastward of Springfield, Missouri, have used the geotourism approach to forge a new rural tourism identity: “Ozark South Central” appeals in large part to Springfielders seeking a dose of country balm. “Geotourism” is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances geographical character, and that’s what urban escapees want. A Missouri State geotourism class helped local leaders to pull together a program using the principles that informed National Geographic’s citizen-participation map-guides. This month, a third county signed on.

Encouragingly, the pattern is repeating worldwide. The older, well-developed Midlands Meander in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa could have been cooked up in Missouri, or vice versa. Both concentrate on things distinctive to the area. In the Burren, in western Ireland, the Burrenbeo Trust actually arranges for farmers to give tours, showing what it takes to wrest food from that rocky landscape.

Fogo Island storyteller Roy Dwyer earns a living in part from tourism, here explaining a cod pot. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Fogo Island storyteller Roy Dwyer earns a living in part from tourism, here explaining a cod pot. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Sometimes a rural area just needs a bit of a boost from tourism. Sometimes it may be critical to community survival.

Remote Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, fell on hard times after the collapse of the cod fishery in the late 20th century. The architecturally iconic (and very high-end) Fogo Island Inn has sought successfully to celebrate island heritage while hiring residents and promoting tourism to augment the remaining fishing industry. Most popular season: April and May, when you can watch the icebergs floating by offshore.

Sometimes the tourism appeal itself needs saving, as with an endangered Wisconsin trout stream. Local heroes made it happen, as you can see in the 3:45-minute concept video below, shot for a proposed series on stewardship success stories.

And sometimes tourism may be critical to preserving rural scenery—the types of geographically distinctive landscapes that make travel a pleasure. In Norway, for instance, rural outmigration and abandoned pasturage has allowed too much forest (not a common problem!) to encroach on views of the country’s iconic fjords. Now local visionaries hope to slow the trend with new tourism businesses featuring cheeses, seafood, adventure, and farm stays amid spectacular surroundings.

For Loudoun, northernmost of Virginia’s equally iconic “Horse Country” counties, it’s been the same danger—loss of scenic appeal—stemming from the opposite problem: Too much in-migration. Subdivisions invade, taking forms that range from dense tracts of townhouses to meadow-muffin mansions that spring up in former pastures like grass around a cow patty.

McMansion-style development transforms pastureland near Waterford, VA. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
McMansion-style development transforms pastureland near Waterford, VA. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Eastern Loudoun has succumbed, but the western portion fights to retain its distinctive character. There, Hillsboro Mayor Roger Vance wrote, “Farmhouses, historic homes, barns, and structures are being saved through repurposing as bed and breakfasts, restaurants, event venues, galleries, and artisan studios.” All tourism-powered, but many an enhancement for locals as well.

The county tourism bureau, Visit Loudoun does a good job of promoting all this. There’s a new Artisan Trail now being planned, following the lead of such U.S. tourism pioneers as western North Carolina’s Handmade in America.

Protecting Countryside with Food and Drink

The key to good geotourism is staying true to the place. What do rural areas usually do? They produce things you can eat and drink. From apricots to apple juice, from ginger to gin, any rural area may have the raw material for a travel experience, along with its own architecture and scenery. That makes for a unique combination. No surprise that the Missouri group began with a “Homegrown Highway” map of just such attractions.

Obviously, poorly managed tourism can spoil rural areas—cookie-cutter resorts, mountains scarred with too many ski runs, ATVs that tear up sensitive natural habitats, loutish tourists insensitive to local ways, and so on. Culinary expert Nikki Rose describes how Crete’s mass-tourism resorts have actually degraded agricultural traditions in that cradle of the Mediterranean diet. Destination leaders must evaluate alternatives, manage tourism wisely, and try to steer a balanced course.

A common, understandable, and almost inevitable reaction to a new rural tourism activity is neighborhood suspicion—the NIMBY syndrome, “Not In My Back Yard!”

In Taylorstown, neighbors were and still are divided about the winery’s arrival, fearing disruption, noise, and traffic. True, the amps are turned up too high for music events. True, cars come and go. It’s a winery, not a pub or a new store, which some of us would have preferred. But it brought life back to sleeping community and preempted posting of that dreaded sign, “For sale. Buildable lots!”

All this was on my mind when I last saw my longtime dentist, who lives in rural exurban Maryland. As he prepared to fit me with yet another crown—blame a fluoride-deprived childhood—I asked him, “What would you say if a farm down your road were proposed to become a winery, with a tasting room, weddings, that sort of thing?”

“I’d oppose it,” he said promptly.

“And what if the choice were between a winery and a 50-home subdivision?”

“I’d pick the winery.”

Wise dentist.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC