Tourism, are you serious?” It has taken many years for tourism to be taken seriously as an economic development tool and recognized as one of the top economic drivers worldwide. I learned this lesson in a more personal manner. To many economic development officials, community developers, and local politicians, tourism has always seemed to be artsy, tree hugging, guitar strumming outsider they caught glimpses of on the way to their seriously important business meetings.
In some cases that was just what we were. Living in the North Carolina High Country, we were place based. Many of us were “native” and others committed the time and energy to be considered “locals.” Exploring our own passions, we became committed to the places that we felt this belonging. Places of natural beauty, challenging adventures, diverse interests and a feeling of connection with nature. To some it was the rivers and woods, others the stages, the kitchens, and studios that allowed us to purse our serious passions and celebrate the simple pleasures we enjoy. It was the opportunities for self-expression with sport, food, music, and the arts while feeling the companionship of accepting neighbors. We did what ever it took to stay near our passion. Taking folks fishing. Playing our band at the lodge. Riding our horses over to let visiting school kids trail ride for the day. Paddling first timers down rivers. Writing, making our pottery, music, woodwork, and paintings, we created a community because we were bound together by love of place; a place that we understood and belonged.
I also began to understand the many visitors that came to our place. They felt the connection and love for the place also. They were interested in our passion activities. Wanted to try or watch our passions and would listen to our stories for hours. They felt the connection to the community and the timelessness of losing oneself in belonging if only for a short stay. They came back over and over bringing friends and family. They did not detract from the place but added to the richness and the opportunity. These opportunities allowed many to make good livings and build businesses based on this destination economy.
Of my cohort of passionate sportsmen, many have expanded their entrepreneurial opportunities in their chosen environment. Some opened restaurants, lodges, guide services, and wine shops. Others also opened stores, garbage collection services, engineering firms, accounting firms, and many other type businesses. All of these businesses are passionate about the local resources and contribute far beyond the considerable tax revenues and payrolls they supply their region. They are where they are because of the unique quality of the community.
Watching the success and failures of controlling the growth and protecting these local resources, I set out to learn the factors for building communities celebrating local culture. What was really going on beyond our individual experiences was the creation of a community system that was based on our unique values. While so many communities were building homogenized monocultures to be like other places, we were building an economy based on unique sense of place. We were creating and attracting businesses and not just what most consider tourism businesses. We attracted industrial and high tech because we were a different type of place. And these businesses were sensitive and protective over our sense of place. That is why they came here. We had created a destination community that was livable and loveable. Not the place trying to attract just anyone for the sake of volume but a place that called to those that really would care about our community.