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Rural Tourism

Tourism is becoming increasingly important to the U.S. economy. A conservative estimate from the Federal Reserve Board in Kansas, based on 2000 data, shows that basic travel and tourism industries accounted for 3.6 percent of all U.S. employment. Even more telling, data from the Travel Industry Association of America indicate that 1 out of every 18 people in the U.S. has a job directly resulting from travel expenditures.

The importance of tourism to local economies varies across the U.S. Some places have an enormous investment in the tourist industry, while others lag far behind. In Nevada, for example, nearly 28 percent of jobs are related to this industry, but in Alabama travel and tourist employment is less than 2 percent.

Nevertheless, the future of tourism is full of potential for small business owners. With the increases in security concerns for international travel and travel to large metro areas, many rural tourist companies are moving in with their own offerings. Many of these low-risk rural areas may be able to rely on tourism as an important part of their economy. Maine—where more than 40 percent of small and home-based businesses are involved in some kind of tourist enterprise—is a good example of this.

A wide variety of tourist opportunities exist throughout rural America and continue to grow as increasing numbers of local entrepreneurs identify new ways to market previously untapped local resources and attractions, and bring tourists into their area.

Moreover, the nature of tourism is especially well-suited to small-scale rural enterprises. Many remote areas are ideal locations for nature-based activities like hunting and fishing, or ecotourism activities such as hiking and rafting.

Travelers interested in local cultures and the heritage of places they visit find an added benefit in having the town's local history buff lead a tour through the battlefield, or in the personal touches of a small bed and breakfast. Agritourism (farm-based tourism) invites tourists to experience working ranches, hay rides, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and much more.

Through land-grant universities and other partners, NIFA promotes research, education, and outreach activities that expand opportunities for rural tourism. Since 1998, NIFA competitive and formula grants have supported 65 research projects, including studies on the importance of local infrastructure in developing a tourist industry, attitudes towards tourism among local populations, and how best to promote local amenities without over-exploitation.

Since 1994, the National Extension Tourism Design Team has identified and promoted extension tourism programs across the U.S. This team's responsibilities and achievements include a list of Extension Tourism Faculty by state and expertise, as well as the annual National Extension Tourism Conference. The Design Team also maintains a National Tourism Publication database published through Michigan State University Extension.

Funded by a grant from NIFA, a major outreach project called “Adding Value to Agriculture: A Collaborative Approach Based on Agricultural Tourism” is promoting partnerships among growers, marketers, and community representatives to explore and develop new agritourism markets.

A productive partnership between state specialists, local extension staff and resource conservation and development officials has allowed Elliott County, KY, once one of the poorest areas in the nation, to become a thriving center for eco-heritage tourism. Gwenda Adkins, local county extension agent, notes that “the knowledge and skills that helped Elliott County came through tourism internship programs and continued support from specialists at the University of Kentucky.”

Through Sea Grant, a partnership between the nation's universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recreation and tourism extension specialists across the U.S. educate coastal residents, business owners, and community leaders about coastal recreation and tourism and work with coastal communities to expand tourism opportunities.

Information and expertise on marine recreation and related subjects can be found on the Oregon State Web site. In addition, the National Sea Grant Library at the University of Rhode Island offers a searchable database of ocean and coastal research and outreach publications from all over the U.S., many of them available online.


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