Sustainable Tourism: Five Essentials for Rural Areas and Small Towns


The Global Expansion of Tourism – A Top World Industry

Tourism ranks third globally after the fuel and chemical industries and ahead of food and automotive products, and has been highly resilient even in the face of 21st Century challenges from violence, natural disasters, and disease. In 2015, global receipts from tourism generated an astounding average of $4 billion per day! A labor-intensive industry, tourism creates jobs and enterprises, increases export revenues, and expands infrastructure to support a wide variety of business sectors around the world.

But tourism presents serious challenges, especially to rural areas and small towns worldwide. To meet these challenges, the practice of sustainable tourismdefined by the United Nations as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities,” increasingly underpins community economic planning and management.

Sustainable Tourism Versus Mass-Tourism

The contrast of sustainable tourism to mass-market tourism is very stark. While sustainable tourism strengthens local authenticity, mass-market tourism pursues volume – “heads in beds” and standardization that creates “mega-hotels, theme parks, chain stores, …[and] environments that are artificial, homogenized, generic, and formulaic.”

Mass-market tourism can destroy what makes an area unique and most attractive to tourists and residents, while ensnaring the local tourism industry in commoditization – a downward race to the lowest price that rural areas and small towns cannot sustain over time.

In contrast, sustainable tourism promotes high-quality, uniqueness, and homegrown elements that are best suited to promoting the values, local attributes, and quality of life of rural areas and small towns.

Five Things Rural Areas and Small Towns Can Do to Promote Sustainable Tourism

So what can communities do to promote sustainable tourism? Here are five ideas to leverage experiences and knowledge worldwide to local economic development.

1. Learn from Others

Sustainable tourism is a global practice that incorporates many sub-elements, such as responsible tourism (encouraging tourists to act better), eco-tourism (which emphasizes protecting the natural world), or agricultural tourism (farm tours and visits). From the international level down to local levels, there are many sources of information and case studies that local economic developers and residents can draw upon to learn how to promote great sustainable tourism planning and management within their communities, such as:


U.S. Federal Government


2. Plan for Long Term Sustainability – Be Careful What You Wish For

Ultimately, sustainable tourism must be integrated into thoughtful local economic development plans, beginning with an inventory of local assets, such as:

  • Biodiversity of the area
  • Natural attractions
  • Cultural attractions
  • Historic attractions
  • Recreational activities
  • Tourism infrastructure/facilities

Understanding what your community offers tourists requires an objective outsider’s view that can be helped through surveys and an in-depth understanding of the regional and national tourism markets, as well as the global market.

Beware that tourism advertising, including from foreign markets, to boost the number of visitors in the absence of community planning and management can lead to unwanted results if local facilities and natural areas are overwhelmed, and the local community feels crowded out.

3. Stay Authentic to Your Community’s Place on Earth

Each area of the world has a unique story – history, people, geography, natural resources – to understand, preserve, and celebrate. Rural areas and small towns often provide a special place in an increasingly populated world today. They can serve as a respite for visitors to simply enjoy an unobstructed view of the night sky and provide a sense of closeness to nature. Gentrification efforts that change the character of rural areas and small towns can ruin the environment for locals and visitors alike and should be managed carefully with a long term view of the effects on the community, and potential negative impacts to tourism if the “local charm” is destroyed.

4. Ask, Listen, and Inform Your Community

In Indiana, a case study of rural sustainable tourism found that “tourism development must involve the local population, proceed only with their approval, and provide a degree of local control.” This study discovered that the best approach was “low impact, small in scale and careful in progress” ensuring that development was “appropriate and sensitive to the local natural and socio-cultural environment” and well integrated into the local social and economic life.

Economic planning that incorporates sustainable tourism is a community effort and economic planners and leaders should seek input from the whole community, not just a few selected economic leaders. At the same time, leaders may need to inform the community about sustainable tourism as a practice that can preserve and protect what is special about a place, and help sustain tourism over the long term.

5. Spread the Word – Share Community Knowledge and Experiences

Gathering and sharing knowledge and experiences between rural and small town communities, as well as learning about sustainable development around the world, can help communities adapt to a changing economic environment where sustainable tourism offers new opportunities. One example of cross state cooperation is the Mississippi-Tennessee-Alabama Rural Tourism Conference, which brings together practitioners to share ideas and experiences to promote regional rural tourism.

Many rural areas and small towns throughout the world share a common need to expand and diversify their economic opportunities. The tourism industry offers one way to contribute to economic development, whether it is a new industry for the area or one that is long standing but underdeveloped. Communities need to incorporate well managed sustainable tourism into economic planning and management to enhance its local economy, and realize that the path of mass-tourism may be both destructive and unsustainable, undermining long term economic development and quality of life for local communities.

Kanava International