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A view of Lake Pepin.

Lake Pepin in southeastern Minnesota is home to bluffs, eagles, and scenic byways.

Tourism heats up

U Tourism Center hosts a conference on sustainable tourism

By Gayla Marty

May 5, 2006

Tourism is like fire. Out of control, it can burn your house down. If you harness it, it can heat your home and cook your food forever.

That's the message that Costas Christ brought to a conference on sustainable tourism at the University of Minnesota April 20. Christ (pronounced "crist") leads the chamber of commerce in Bar Harbor, Maine, and is a world tourism expert whose experience includes a column for National Geographic.

Maine has experienced an increase in cruise ship stops from 39 to 87 per year since 1998. The European Union has identified sustainable tourism as a way to address poverty in its member nations. Brazil is several years into a sustainable tourism effort that identifies children as its most important heritage asset.

These are just a few indicators of how fast tourism is growing worldwide. Tourism is now the top source of foreign exchange. And nature-based tourism is the fastest growing kind of tourism.

"We have the chance to set the course for the next 50 years."

In Minnesota, tourism is a $10 billion industry, and tourism and agriculture are now about equal slices in the state's economic pie. Tourism and agriculture also both depend on natural resources. It's no coincidence that the new Minnesota quarter shows a fishing boat on a wooded lake.

"Minnesota is and continues to be a strong brand in tourism," Christ told the crowd, citing the state's relatively clean environment. "If ever there was a time for sustainable tourism in Minnesota, it is now."

A seat at the local cafe

Christ and other presenters talked about the "triple bottom line" of sustainable tourism--tourism that measures success not only in terms of financial benefits but the strength of the social fabric in local communities and a healthy environment. Economic development through tourism must be sustainable, they said, and it won't be sustainable unless it's economically viable.

Dollars are the normal framework for talking about and promoting tourism. But if local people's needs aren't addressed, tourism in that town isn't sustainable.

Minnesota tourism facts

* In Minnesota, 39% of tourism is in the Twin Cities area, 25% in the north central and west, 19% in the southern part of the state, and 17% in the northeast.

* More than $600 million is generated in state sales tax through tourism.

* The annual number of travelers in Minnesota--28.6 million--is nearly five times the state's population.

* Minnesota has half the number of resorts now as it did 10 years ago. As homes replace resorts, access to lakes and forests for other Minnesotans and vacationers will change.

For example, to a vacationer, Minnesota tourism may mean a week or two at a cabin up north, a little fishing, and a seat at the local cafe, said Ingrid Schneider, director of the U's Tourism Center. But to a local resident, tourism is a whole season, when somebody else is sitting in your seat at the local cafe, the lake is crowded, and "home" is filled with strangers. Tourism brings job growth and opportunities for advancement, though jobs may be low-paying or come with high burn-out rates. And tourism may keep that local cafe open for years to come. Communities are beginning to engage their citizens and plan more carefully for tourism.

The environment also has to be taken into account. Any economic development that's "here today, gone tomorrow" is not really development, presenters agreed.

"If we don't save natural resources, we won't have a $10 billion industry for long," said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota, the state tourism office.

The importance of tourism in Minnesota--and the desire to sustain it in the three spheres of economics, the environment, and culture--led to the creation of the Tourism Center at the University of Minnesota in 1987. The state recognized the need for independent research in many areas, from climate change and forestry to business and work force development.

University experts from all those areas spoke on panels at the conference, illustrating the interdisciplinary opportunities at the U related to tourism.

Aereal view of Lake of the Woods.
Lake of the Woods is the northernmost point in the lower 48 states. Photo copyright Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Break-out sessions featured representatives from Aspen Skiing Company, the hospitality industry, the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, Brazil's national efforts in sustainable tourism, the Department of Natural Resources, and more.

The owner of the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais and the director of Minnesota's Renewing the Countryside project talked about the Green Routes project, which is designed to help travelers find places to buy locally-grown food, locally-produced art, places to stay, and other businesses unique to their communities and to Minnesota. At a resource fair, they got to show their wares.

About 160 people attended the conference from across Minnesota and all its neighboring states. Schneider says it was a great conversation starter.

"We found some interesting and forward-thinking business leaders and communities within the region that we can emulate," she says, "people interested in progress as well as sustaining our most important attributes as a destination. We have the chance now to set the course for the next 50 years."