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Taking a Closer Look

Tourism and the Environment: What’s the Connection?

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Tourism is a voluntary activity, which means that tourists have a choice among competing destinations. Given a choice, where will they go? Virtually every study of traveler motivations has shown that, along with rest and recreation, visiting scenic areas and historic sites are the top reasons why people travel. Travel writer Arthur Frommer notes that, “Among cities with no particular recreational appeal, those that have preserved their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t, receive almost no tourism at all. Tourism simply doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

So how can a community attract tourists and their dollars without losing its soul? First, we need to recognize that sustainable tourism is a long-term strategy, not a quick fix. Second, understand that people are tourists in order to visit a place. As economic development expert Don Rypkema says, “Nobody goes anywhere to go down a waterslide or buy a tee-shirt. They may do both these things, but that isn’t the reason they went there.” People travel to see places, especially places that are special, unusual, and unique. Put another way, anyplace can create a tourist attraction, but it is those places that are attractions in and of themselves that people most want to visit.

view of Annapolis, Maryland, downtown waterfront
View of Annapolis, Maryland, downtown waterfront.

Preservation-minded cities like Annapolis, Maryland; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Victoria, British Columbia; and Guanajuato, Mexico are among North America’s leading tourism destinations precisely because they have protected their unique architectural heritage. By contrast, cities that have obliterated their past attract hardly any tourists at all, except for the highly competitive and notoriously fickle convention business.

Not every community is blessed with a great natural wonder or a rich legacy of historic buildings, but most communities have tourism potential. Realizing this potential begins by inventorying your assets — both existing and potential. …

End of excerpt.

photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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