The travel and tourism industry is big business. It is also the nation’s primary source of foreign exchange earnings — more than $64 billion last year — considerably more than agriculture, which used to be in first place. One of the most rapidly growing segments of the tourism business is urban tourism — even in the American West, where some of the world’s most spectacular natural attractions are located.
Urban areas have long served as important gateways to tourism destinations located in the hinterland. Though some feel the gateway is too often a doormat, tourism infrastructure developed for the gateway — especially transportation, telecommunications and lodging — also serves the city’s broader economic development efforts.
Urban areas are also important tourism destinations. Professional sports draw spectators from a larger regional market. Cultural attractions — museums, symphony orchestras, live theater, comedy houses, arts festivals — are magnets for travel and tourism. Specialty shopping opportunities — from the upscale shopping center to the cluster of factory outlet stores — draw people eager to spend money to big cities for the mall experience and to smaller towns where the outlet stores are typically located. Educational attractions — such as conventions, proprietary self-improvement short courses, religious and spiritual gatherings, professional training courses — are typically held in urban settings which have the facilities to handle large numbers of people.
According to tourism guru Bert Winterbottom, tourism attractions in urban areas will be most successful if they keep the needs of the local resident front and center. The classic example, says Winterbottom, is Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Originally planned for the people of Baltimore, the Inner Harbor area now draws more than nine million visitors a year. Reason: The focus on the local lifestyle and needs contributed to the authenticity and ambiance of the place. That’s a powerful draw for the outside visitor. By contrast, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is little more than a tourist ghetto. Reason: the Wharf is disconnected from the life of a great city.
But one of the most important trends in urban tourism is the use of the city or town as a “base camp” or “jumping off point” for the tourist wanting to sample a variety of activities and experiences. According to Winterbottom, the base camp satisfies important needs of the traveler. A base camp is a place where the tourist is anchored, a place to explore the spirit while the body recovers — which means a physically interesting place with historic buildings, interesting architecture, open space, public places, markets, entertainment and people.
A base camp is also a place with shops to buy supplies and equipment required by the adventurer; a place where information, directions, maps and guides can be secured; a place with a wide range of accommodations — from hostels to quality hotels; a place with an interesting range of food, beverages and entertainment — great pubs or restaurants with local cuisine or themes.
Many cities are primarily destinations — such as New York and San Francisco. But many successful urban destinations, such as Reno, Denver and Seattle, are also gateways — Reno to the Sierra Nevada, Denver to the Rockies and Seattle to the San Juans and Cascadia. Many gateways, however, can be base camps — a function that is at once more lucrative and more interesting. Given changes in the way we live and work, watch for tourism growth in the nation’s urban base camps.