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Too many misunderstand the true impact of tourism

TOWER, Minn. — “You can’t raise a family on dock boy wages.” That was one of the comments at the recent public hearing on the Twin Metals lease renewal that has been bouncing around in my head for the past couple weeks.

Marshall Helmberger

In nine words, the comment encapsulates a prominent perspective in our area, namely that a “tourism” economy here in the North Country is inherently seasonal and does not support good-paying jobs on which you can raise a family or sustain a middle class life.

In a certain sense, I don’t disagree. Tourism, in the limited sense, is certainly seasonal in nature. And no, you can’t raise a family on dock boy wages.

But what we generally think of as “tourism” represents only a tiny fraction of the impact that bringing visitors to our region really entails. You can start to get an inkling of what I mean at one of those occasional sessions of the Tuesday Group in Ely, where new residents to the area turn out to introduce themselves.

Almost to a person or to a couple, the path that led them to make the Ely area their home started with a single visit to the area, most often to the Boundary Waters. One visit soon became many, which led to a determination to make the area their home.

You can find many similar stories in communities throughout our region. The North Country isn’t for everyone, but for some it has an enormous emotional and spiritual draw and that makes living here a life goal for many people.

Some can’t make the shift until retirement, but many aren’t willing to wait that long. They make the move, whether they have gainful employment at the moment or not, with the recognition that they will do what it takes to make a living and create a lifestyle that feels right to them.

Such people have come to our area, by the thousands, and they are transforming the way our communities see the future.

I can relate, because like many residents who came from somewhere else, I didn’t move here for a job. In fact, in 1984, when my wife, Jodi, and I moved here to build our cabin in the woods, you couldn’t find a job if your life depended on it. The mines had shut down and the economy was in collapse, one of several severe mining downturns we’ve since witnessed in our 32 years in the North Country.

But, like so many, we moved here for the lifestyle, not the job opportunities, and we eventually found a way to make a living. Found a way to raise a family, send a kid to college, and put some money aside for a decent retirement.

Hundreds of other new residents have done the same, starting a wide range of home-based businesses, outfitting companies, real estate brokerages, successful retail establishments, construction firms, manufacturing operations, resorts, consultancies, educational facilities, wellness centers, restaurants, and on and on. They’ve created hundreds of jobs in doing so, most of which are year-round positions that pay a livable wage.

As folks in the area debate the future of their communities, and whether they’ll be reliant on tourism or mining, or something else, it is at least useful to understand what a tourism economy actually represents in the larger sense, and what it takes to sustain a community’s vitality for the long term.

What it comes down to, in the end, is quality of life. Think of tourism as your community’s opportunity to make its case to each new visitor — that it could be a great place to live, find a job or start a business, and raise a family. Sure, the influx of dollars spent by visitors makes a big difference, but the ultimate goal of a tourism economy in small rural communities should be to strengthen our human capital by enticing new people, with new ideas, creativity, and energy, to invest, stay, and build a stronger community and local economy.

When we fail to understand, or intentionally ignore, such objectives, we undermine our own future.

I recognize that we have differing visions of quality of life. For some, it’s purely measured in the stuff we can buy, which means it is ultimately measured by the size of our paycheck. But for many, if not most, people, the paycheck is only one factor, and usually not even that close to the top of their list when it comes to life quality.

A recent essay, “Responsible Tourism: How to Preserve and Revitalize the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg,” by Edward McMahon, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., provides some valuable insights into how we can avoid making mistakes that undermine quality of life and make our communities less than inviting to visitors and prospective new residents.

Some of the recommendations he offers, include:

• Preserve and restore historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes — these are what make our communities unique. Communities that don’t preserve their history, or encourage development that’s not in keeping with the community’s character (think chain stores and restaurants), lose their cultural memory and their soul. There are plenty of communities that have been swallowed up by strip development, big box stores and fast food chains, and there is absolutely no reason for anyone to ever venture out of their way to such places, since they all look the same. Of course, if it’s your natural environment that brings folks to town, as is the case here in the North Country, then protecting that asset is essential to the future.

• Protect your gateway — because first impressions matter. “Many communities have gotten used to ugliness, accepting it as inevitable to progress,” writes McMahon. “More enlightened communities recognize that community appearance is important. It affects a community’s image and its economic well-being. I’ll never forget how charmed I was on my first visit to New Market, Virginia – a Norman Rockwell sort of town in the Shenandoah Valley. Nor will I forget how disappointed I was on a later visit to find giant fast food and gas stations’ signs towering over the town’s historic buildings, obliterating the scenery and diminishing the town’s appeal as a tourist destination.”

• Enhance the journey — because tourism is the sum total of the travel experience. “There are many great destinations in America; however, there are very few great journeys left,” writes McMahon. “Except for a few special roads, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Natchez Trace, driving along a typical American highway can be a profoundly depressing experience.”

Perhaps because of our region’s mining and logging past, many area residents, and certainly our local governments, pay little attention to aesthetics. We see this all the time on our highways, where the concept of a scenic byway is virtually shunned. Many people, myself included, used to love the once-scenic drive between Tower and Ely. These days they try not to look in order to ward off depression. Don’t think visitors to the area don’t see the changes as well.

Unfortunately, we design all our roads here with the mindset of an extractive economy, where the only consideration is the fastest and most efficient transport of workers to the mill and whatever resource we happen to be shipping out at the moment. We run giant mowers down the roadsides, slicing off trees and shrubs, leaving unsightly debris and dangerously sheared spikes in their wake.

This doesn’t happen in most other places, because most people appreciate the value of scenery and recognize that, for most of us, it matters to our sense of well-being. Scenic roadways are an asset, and not just for visitors, and we do harm to our region when we fail to protect them.

There’s plenty here to ponder for a while. When we think about tourism, we need to recognize that its potential impacts go far beyond our traditional definitions and how tourism in the larger sense can successfully build sustainable and economically diverse communities. In other words, how tourism can do much more than provide summer wages for dock boys.

Marshall Helmberger is the publisher of The Timberjay newspapers (including the Ely Timberjay, Tower-Soudan Timberjay and Cook-Orr Timberjay), where this commentary originally appeared. It is republished with permission.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/30/2016 - 08:57 pm.

    Wow !

    This Northern Woods citizen continues or report things other will not. He speaks of a major opportuniy for “up north!” that few who have a reach outside their bar stools or political gatherings will enchage as a possibility. We should perk our ears and listen carefully to a clean and careful way out of the economic morass that mining dependence has created.

  2. Submitted by Deborah McLaren on 09/13/2016 - 12:58 pm.

    Responsible tourism can contribute to thrive-able communities

    Helmberger’s case for tourism offers up an important long-term scenario and his personal experience of positive impacts of the industry for “Up North.” Tourism in the Northland can provide more equitable jobs and seasonality if long-term thinking and planning are part of an overall vision of thrive-ability for a community or region. Checking out other places where tourism has been a thoughtful process is important. Building a strong local, independent business network that includes farmers, even small ag, is critical. Community members must equitably benefit from of a strong and healthy community-centered economy.

    Thrive-able communities are economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. They meet challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others. And it takes a long-term perspective – one that’s focused on both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle.

    One of the things missing from the tourism discussion is the long-term impact of climate change in northern Minnesota. According to climatologist and professor at the UMN, Mark Seely, the data, year by year, decade by decade, are alarming. Seely has been analyzing climate data for 40 years and says that Minnesota has the most significant changes in the country next to Alaska. Northern Minnesota’s weather is changing – ice outs are earlier, the snow seasons are shorter, there is a well documented moose decline due to parasites that are moving north as the climate warms and summers that are too hot and humid for moose to survive. These things will have a dramatic impact on the region and tourism. At the same time, because of climate change, hardiness zones are moving north and growing seasons are becoming longer. The tourism season is expanding.

    Responsible tourism is a growing concept around the world. It is tourism that minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts and generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities. In short – it’s a better place to live and a better place to visit.

    It offiically began in 2002, when 280 representatives from all sectors of tourism from 20 countries attended the Cape Town (South Africa) Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, preceding the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. A declaration on responsible tourism was agreed and numerous countries and regions are implementing the goals.

    Tuesday November 8 is World Responsible Tourism Day 2016 and around the world communities and organizations are marking it with special events, communications and consumer promotions, demonstrating the industry’s determination to make a real difference. It is a organizing point to bring communities together for discussions about responsible/sustainable tourism and their community’s future. Individuals, tourism offices, historians, education, chambers, nonprofits, business owners, faith-based groups, and other organizations can play a role in creating responsible tourism. It is also a chance to prepare for what the United Nation’s has designated as 2017 – the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development (hashtag IY2017). This is a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the public, while mobilizing all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change.

    As a step toward 2017, communities in the Northland, and elsewhere in Minnesota, can come together on Nov 8th through community coffees, reading groups, nonprofits, faith groups, and civic organizations to learn about responsible tourism and how it can benefit both locals and travelers. Have fun – organize a photo safari of your community before your get-together. There are numerous resources, even here in Minnesota, that can help inform and shape discussions and actions.

    Deborah McLaren
    Author of Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel
    Co-Editor of the Responsible Tourism Handbook
    Director, Local Flavor

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