Top Twenty

The Future of Small Town Tourism

The Future of Small Town Tourism


Times have never been better for capitalising on the growth in small town tourism. Here’s why: For the first time ever, rural communities can become successful for being exactly who they are. One of the biggest objections to tourism is that residents don’t want their small town to be commercialised. They are afraid of becoming discovered, which could lead to big development, increased land values and cost of living, and loss of the small town way of life they love. In the past five years tourism has seen some big changes.

Large numbers of travellers have lost interest in cookie cutter restaurants, lodging and attractions. In South Africa there are only a few small towns that have managed to differentiate themselves. The rest are just replicas of each other, even though they have much more to offer. Instead, travellers want local food, local attractions and connection to the lifestyles of local people. This has led to huge new trends – the Slow Food Movement, Authentic Tourism, Geotourism, Agritourism, Heritage Tourism and more.

Geotourism is all about preserving local culture. Heritage tourism is getting visitors onto the back roads looking for historic buildings and traditional crafts. Authentic tourism attracts visitors who like to see things just the way they are. The Slow Food Movement is getting people off the main highways and into small town restaurants, where local cafes serve up their own specialties.

There is a ready market of interested visitors for small towns that are prepared to grow a tourism sector. Preparing for tourism requires that a rural community take a critical look at itself. It isn’t necessary to hold big scoping sessions and do SWAT analysis to get started moving slowly to incorporate tourism into your economic mix. Look at your region with a tourism lens. Do you already have visitors coming to fish, river raft, and hike? Without that tourism lens, it is easy to miss the value and opportunity of the traffic that outdoor recreation is already generating.

Looking at the tourism potential of a region can lead to collaboration, with communities too small to offer all visitor services coming together to create a Regional Flavour Destination. Rural tourism is vastly different from urban tourism. Rural tourism is about small locally owned businesses that support families.

Urban tourism is mostly about big businesses creating low wage service industry jobs. Rural tourism is about community and economic development. The reality for small towns and rural regions is that there is no money for business attraction. The good news is that by building a tourism sector, a town is also implementing a business attraction strategy. Most business owners in small towns, who aren’t born there, are first attracted to the community as a visitor.

These successful towns focused on strategies for welcoming new businesses and making it easy to open up shop, and the tourism industry took care of the marketing. Agritourism is providing small family farmers another income stream, by capitalizing on their way of life as a product. Our well established wine route tourism is a great example. Why is all this important? Because few small towns actually have a problem attracting visitors during the peak seasons.

The challenge is to attract more visitors during the off-peak times, thereby developing a thriving and sustainable local tourism industry.

These new tourism trends are off-peak opportunities that should be explored and developed by every small town.

Articles are written by independent contributors and the views expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Top Twenty.