Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Extension and Tourism Development


Beth Walter Honadle
National Program Leader for Economic Development
Extension Service-USDA, Washington, D.C.

Tourism is big business. Foreign and domestic visitors traveling in this country generated $330 billion in tourism revenues in 1988, up from $210 billion in 1983. Tourism, currently the third largest industry in the United States, supported nearly six million jobs in 1988.1 Rural tourism development is seen as so important that a congressionally mandated task force, including 20 federal government agencies, recently completed a report on rural tourism policy needs. Tourism development provides opportunities for integrated issues programming across Extension disciplines.

Understanding Tourism

The so-called tourism "industry" is actually made up of a lot of other industries, including restaurants, hotels, transportation, fuel, entertainment, cultural arts, camping supplies, sports equipment. In fact, the list could go on indefinitely as travelers make various purchases locally, enroute, and at their points of destination. Tourists may make deliberate decisions to visit a locale or they may, in Anne Tyler's words, be "accidental tourists." A person may visit an area while on a business trip and thereby become a potential customer for the local tourist industry.

Economists know that demand for a commodity will be affected by factors like income (the more money you make, the more you can demand), the price of competing goods (if it's cheaper for you to go to Orlando than Anaheim, you'll probably go to Disney World rather than Disneyland), and the price of complementary goods (if the price of gas goes up, you leave the camper home).

But tourism, from an economic development viewpoint, is interesting because it can be affected by so many noneconomic forces seemingly beyond the control of the businesses involved. For example, the murder rate in our nation's capital has actually helped some of the suburban Washington hotels catering to tourists who flock to Washington in Spring to see the cherry blossoms. Medical waste, including contaminated blood and used hypodermic syringes, that washed up on some popular beaches in the Summer of 1988 suddenly affected tourist trade in some coastal areas.

Likewise, an Alar scare might have a negative economic impact on a community that marketed itself to tourists as an apple-picking center. The location of a smokestack industry in an area known for clean air and tranquility might shatter the area's pristine image and drive tourists to other destinations. Thus, tourism is vulnerable to sudden changes in people's tastes due to things like perceived environmental hazards, climate, pollution, crime rates, and intangibles such as ambience.

Need for Interdisciplinary Programming

The complex nature of tourism makes it a good candidate for interdisciplinary programming in Extension, as the following examples illustrate:

  • Agriculture and natural resources may provide tourists with recreational opportunities (fee hunting, pick-your-own farms, camping, wildlife photography, whitewater rafting, and backpacking). Prudent conservation and management practices may actually increase the income-generating, job-creating, and revenue-raising potential of natural resources to landowners and communities. However, natural resource management may also influence tourists' decisions indirectly in a negative way (by cutting down scenic trees or spraying vegetation with noxious chemicals, for instance). Trying to understand the net economic effects of such complicated issues as these would require collaboration by agricultural and natural resource specialists, economists, and business specialists.
  • Home economists can offer advice to home-based businesses and can help local businesses deal with consumer issues. For example, the current popularity of bed and breakfast establishments springing up nationwide means that B&B operators need education in areas as diverse as licensing and permit requirements, management and marketing, employee and customer relations, and food preparation and handling.
  • Community resource development specialists can help local decision makers plan for tourism and assess the positive and negative impacts (costs and benefits) of tourism on the community. They can help to diversify the local economic base and make rural business more competitive.
  • 4-H and youth specialists can educate youth on tourism-related businesses, hospitality, and community appearance. They can teach young people how to plan businesses that cater to tourists' demands for such things as souvenir t-shirts.

Extension Programs in Tourism

A systematic search of the Cooperative Extension System's computerized National Accountability and Reporting System's (NARS) database yielded information on activities related to tourism. In the current (1988-91) four-year plan of work cycle, there were 20 major program plans that mentioned "tourism." These programs are dispersed geographically, with three in the South, one in the West, four in the North Central, and one in the Northeast.

The programs emphasize three primary areas of effort. First, the largest amount of work is targeted to developing businesses directly involved in tourism. This includes such things as business management, customer relations, marketing, computerization of functions, and employee training and evaluation. The second area of concentration is aimed at the community as a whole. This is exemplified by Ohio's plan of work, which states that "Outdoor recreation and tourism affect every facet of the community.... Tourism recreation resource development is poorly understood and sorely lagging." These programs deal with such issues as conflict resolution, networking, and leadership development.

Third, there are programs that take a natural resources perspective - Mississippi's coastal recreation and tourism industry program, New Hampshire's marine recreation and tourism program, and Washington's marine recreation and commerce programs are examples. The New Hampshire plan of work acknowledges the inherent conflicts between commercial and recreational uses of natural resources, such as when sport fishermen are in competition with commercial fishing interests for limited resources. All of these programs are indicative of the complex issues involved in tourism.

Extension programs in tourism are having positive impacts. Based on information contained in NARS reports for fiscal year 1988, impacts include:

  • Five new businesses were established and four new festivals were started in Arkansas with a multimillion dollar impact on the economy.
  • New Hampshire's Extension Service has worked with the sportfishing industry to help identify ways to better promote sportfishing opportunities within the coastal zone and to collect data related to the image of sportfishing and the impact of this sport on local communities. A Coastal Sportfishing Forum was held to address several of these questions and an assessment of tag-and-release programs was begun to provide "information on how to maintain high quality fishing experiences while practicing conservation measures."
  • Countywide tourism councils have been formed in Tama County and Jackson County, Iowa, with Extension's help. The area community development specialist kept the communities focused on the economic impacts of tourism on jobs and dollars rather than just "things to do and places to go."
  • With Extension's help, Rockport, Texas, completed a $2.4 million public beach improvement project. This came about after an Extension recreation and parks specialist organized a three-day bus tour to other successful parks projects along the Texas Gulf Coast in 1986. He included more than 50 business, civic, and religious leaders, as well as the media and area legislators, in the tour. Two years later the beach was attracting a national clientele because of the pavilions, picnic areas, boat ramp, saltwater pool, and other amenities it has to offer.
  • The Resource Economics Department of the University of Rhode Island has developed a "Tourism Development Simulation Model: The Game," which is a self-contained microcomputer program to aid impact analysis of tourism development. It's being used by Extension tourism for budgeting and planning, and is concerned with the economic, social, and environmental aspects of tourism.

Implications and Conclusion

Tourism relates to several of the Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives, but it's most directly related to Revitalizing Rural America (RRA). For instance, the RRA National Initiative is focusing on two critical issues: diminishing competitiveness of rural areas and their dependence on too few sources of income. Marketing an area's natural resources, including water, wildlife, and other attractions, is one way to diversify the economic base of a rural area. Landowners need information on how to maintain and enhance natural resources (for example, attracting wildlife) as well as information on how to manage and market their natural resource-based enterprises. Tourism provides an excellent opportunity for Extension to test its skills in interdisciplinary programming, teamwork, and focusing on issues.

In addition to working together within Extension, we need to do a better job of networking with resources outside our institutions. For example, the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce gathers information to help promote international travel to the United States. The U.S. Travel Data Center, a nonprofit corporation, has information on domestic tourism.2 The Center for Rural Tourism Development at the California State University in Chico develops visitor attraction plans for rural communities and conducts community consensus-building workshops to clarify attitudes and values toward tourism development.3 The Spring 1989 issue of Economic Development Review is a mini-issue on tourism.4 The National Trust for Historic Preservation sponsored two conferences in 1989 on the theme of tourism and America's heritage. For those of you in areas rich in historic attractions, the National Trust would be a useful resource. In sum, don't forget the many resources outside the land-grant universities.

A need exists to revitalize rural communities. One part of this is strengthening and diversifying rural economies through tourism development. Cooperative Extension can play an important role in this by educating community leaders and business operators. Tourism provides a good opportunity for Extension to test its skills at interdisciplinary programming and working with resources outside the land-grant universities.


1. Information contained in Report of the Federal Task Force on Rural Tourism to the Rural Tourism Council (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).

2. U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, 14th and Constitution Avenue, N.W., Research Office, Room 1516, Washington, D.C. 20230, 202-377-3811. U.S. Travel Data Center, 2 Lafayette Centre, 1133 21st Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, 202-293-1040.

3. The Center for Rural Tourism Development, Northern California Higher Education Council, California State University, Chico, CA 95929-0865, 916-895-5901.

4. Economic Development Review, VII (Spring 1989), contains a minitheme on tourism. Recommended articles include "Measuring Tourism Marketing Performance," "A Small Town Revival Through Tourism: Jamesport, Missouri," and "A Methodology for Estimating the Seasonal Population in Rural Areas: A Case Study of Northern Arizona." Published by the American Economic Development Council, 4849 North Scott Street, Suite 22, Schiller Park, IL 60176.