I find it endlessly interesting that tourism is such a central piece of economic development strategies in cities given the industry’s limited capacity to transform cities. Over the past few decades, big and small cities alike have pursued the same general mix of tourism venues: convention centers, waterfront promenades, festival marketplaces and malls, aquariums, sports stadiums and arenas, nightlife districts and restaurant rows, and, increasingly, gambling casinos. Streetscape beautification, public art, visitors centers, and way finding signage have made central cities more attractive than many of them were even in their early to mid 20th century heyday.
As Hal Rothman pointed out, people will pay for memorable experiences even when they fall away from buying material things. Experiences, not possessions, are the new marker of status. For all the interest people express in getting off the beaten path and seeing something that captures the essence of a place, the majority of tourists are quite content to stick to the main attractions. Thus, although there is pressure to seem unique, cities also rush headlong to copy each other’s tourism infrastructures.
The impact of tourism is different from place to place. We’ve seen that Atlantic City had a bad experience with casino gambling, which failed to bring prosperity beyond the casino walls. Las Vegas, by contrast, banked on its singular reputation (which it has curiously been able to maintain in spite of the proliferation of casinos nationally) and kept crowds coming. Yet the economic collapse of the 2000s brought Vegas’s hothouse tourism growth to a standstill, and only now are there signs of new life. The old Sahara Hotel, which closed down a couple of years ago, is about to get a full-scale facelift and reopen in the hope of a new wave of expansion. New Orleans built a casino a decade ago, prompting concerns of another Atlantic City, but the casino and the city around it have coexisted rather well (probably because New Orleans has so many offerings that a single casino can’t redirect too many people from the city’s offerings). Will a casino boost downtown Cleveland? Let’s just say that it’s much easier for a historian to describe the past than to predict the future.
Elsewhere, tourism has had varied impacts. When Wall Street wealth faltered, New York’s tourist trade kept the city from slipping very much, but this likely had as much to do with the fact that NYC has a well-balanced economy, unlike Las Vegas, whose eggs are in one basket. One thing is certain: cities, states, and even the national government are embracing tourism as a catalyst for economic expansion more than at any time in U.S. history. The campaigns are large, expensive, and ambitious. NYC aims to attract 55 million visitors annually by 2015; Chicago hopes to lure 50 million by 2020; New Orleans is eyeing an increase to 13 million in time for its tercentennial celebration in 2018.
The challenge for cities, it seems to me, is to find ways to turn a larger number of these tourists into new residents. Some cities, including San Antonio, Texas, have campaigns underway to try to entice visitors out of the so-called “tourist bubble” (the zone of concentrated, well-marketed tourist attractions in downtown) and into their neighborhoods. In Las Vegas there have been rumblings of efforts to fund resident-oriented amenities in downtown. Washington, DC, is using scattered public art projects throughout the city to entice visitors to its Cherry Blossom Festival to see more of the nation’s capital than just the attractions around the Mall. Cities must also find ways to make tourism pay off in clear, tangible ways that residents can see close to home. To do so, it seems critical to do more than simply tout cool, hip neighborhoods or public art installations, as compelling as these may be. Building upon a favorable tourist image ultimately depends on having effective public schools, good and affordable housing options, and a range of solid employment opportunities.