If there is one thing that I took away from the Governor’s Tourism Conference last week, it is that tourism IS economic development. The two go hand in hand. It is just as important for smaller cities like Calhoun as it is for larger ones.

Georgia Tourism, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, announced in May 2019 that the state’s tourism industry generated a record-breaking $66.2 billion in business sales impact in 2018, up 4.7%, according to the U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics.

Times have never been better for adding tourism to a small town’s economic mix. For the first time ever, rural communities can become successful for being exactly who they are.

“One of the biggest objections to tourism is that residents and business owners do not want their small town being ‘discovered,’ which could lead to big development, increased land values and cost of living, and loss of the small-town way of life they love,” said Joanne Steele, president of Rural Tourism Marketing Group.

On a positive note, rural tourism is focused on small, locally owned businesses that support families and the community as well as economic development.

In the past five years tourism has seen some big changes. Large numbers of travelers have lost interest in cookie cutter restaurants, lodging and attractions. Instead, they want local food, local attractions and connection to the lifestyles of local people.

This has led to huge new trends – the Slow Food Movement, Authentic Tourism, Geotourism, Heritage Tourism, Agritourism and Georgia’s burgeoning Craft Brewery Industry.

The Slow Food Movement involves getting people off the interstate and into small town restaurants, where local cafes serve up their own specialties. Authentic tourism attracts visitors who like to see things just the way they are.

Geotourism is all about preserving local culture. Heritage tourism is getting visitors onto the backroads looking for historic churches, quilt barns and traditional crafts.

“Agritourism is a unique experience that combines traditional agriculture with tourism. In Georgia, agriculture and tourism are our state’s top two economic generators. The combination of the two promotes all areas of Georgia, rural and urban, and encourages tourists to explore Georgia’s farms and agribusinesses. Agritourism is providing small family farmers another income stream, by capitalizing on their way of life as a product,” Steele explained. “U-pick opportunities, farm tours, dude ranch-type programs and community supported agriculture bring urban dwellers who live a few hours away onto farms to learn more about where their food comes from and to buy local.”

Georgia Trend Magazine recently noted that in the past five years more than 30 craft breweries and micro-distilleries have bubbled up all over the state, yet this is a trend that has been spreading throughout the rest of the country for the past 20 years. Georgia, it seems, has been slow to tip the glass, but now that the keg’s been tapped, the beer is flowing.

According to the Beer Institute, Georgia’s brewing industry generated $3.5 billion in direct economic impact in 2012. That number includes breweries, distributors and retail sales. $1.9 billion of that number was generated by breweries alone.

Business owners in any successful small town encourage an active tourism economy.

These successful towns focus on strategies for welcoming new businesses and making it easy to open shop, and the tourism industry takes care of the marketing. There is a ready market of interested visitors for small towns that are prepared to grow a tourism sector.

By building a tourism sector, a town is also implementing a business attraction strategy.

Most business owners in small towns who aren’t born there are first attracted to the community as a visitor.

Once a town has taken steps to evaluate its tourism assets and interests, a tourism industry can be created that serves the town while honoring local traditions and lifestyle.

Sarah Ostuw is director of the Gordon County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Recommended for you