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Managing cultural tourism in changing times

I’ve been commuting back and forth between Southern Indiana and Indianapolis now for over 48 years. For many of those years, it was a weekly happening. Every time I return to the hilly country of the Ohio Valley, I feel a real joy for the richness of the place.
It isn’t any one thing that rings my bell. It’s the whole intertwined mix of people, heritage, activities, landscape and opportunities. Even with the humidity of the river valley, Southern Indiana is my pick of the best of all places. I don’t imagine I’m the only one to feel this way. I’m sure most of you do, too.
The time has come to tell others and invite them in to experience what I call ‘our piece of heaven.’
Tourism is big business all over the world, and Indiana is no exception. The Indianapolis Star newspaper recently ran a splendid article entitled ‘Destination: Indiana.’ We so often tout Indiana as the ‘Crossroads of America’ because of its geographic location as the center of the population of the United States. This is strategic and a real plus for business and industry, but it’s not the whole story for our state. We are no mere pass-through to somewhere else. We are a place to come to and stay until returning home. When you have a choice, this is the place to be.
The Indiana Office of Tourism Development records 58 million visitors to Indiana each year. For a state with six million residents, that isn’t bad. And as a by-product, 94,000 Hoosiers have tourist-related jobs that feed their families and provide the funds for their own free-time activities.
And why do so many tourists come to Indiana? Certainly they come to witness our superb sporting events, but as Sally Gaskill, a professor at Indiana University in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, points out in The Indianapolis Star story, ‘many would be surprised to learn that arts and cultural activities attract more people in Indiana than either recreation or sports.’
Gaskill says ‘cultural tourism’ must be a part of any community’s plan for economic development. ‘Cultural tourists are people who choose to spend their leisure dollars exploring a community’s arts, culture, heritage, environment and history.’
In the same article, Purdue University Prof. Liping A. Cai, the director of the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center, tells us that a 2002 Indiana Tourism Council Governor’s Report said, ‘While sports and state parks were listed by 12 percent of visitors’ as their priority, ’81 percent listed scenic beauty, 70 percent shopping, and 65 percent small or quaint towns.’
It sounds like Southern Indiana has all the essentials that folks seek for a good vacation. Everything from a one-day trip to a small town festival to a two-week journey on The Ohio Scenic Highway. There is solid research to tell us exactly what people want to do, where they will spend their money, and how we get the word out about our accommodations, events and venues. We have trained and skilled professionals in place to take advantage of these opportunities, and we have an involved citizenry to make it all happen.
We are in a period of shift in employment opportunities. It’s a good time to look to tourism-related fields for the development of jobs and business opportunities. Today’s visitor wants multiple things to do and see and a convenient routing of the hours they spend. It will take counties working with other counties and towns cooperating with other towns. Maybe some alliances we have never considered before. What a chance for extended community building!
So let’s decide how we want to manage tourism and then get busy. Yes, I said manage tourism. Years ago I remember people worried that tourists would come and spoil our desired quality of life with noise and trash. Now we know that we set the conditions, and tourists will be a positive force for all of us who call this place home. It is our call.