Tue, December 06, 2005
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12/06/05

Becky Bovell column

Why we need to help guests go native

Space travel may be the newest tourism frontier, but until we find practical (and affordable) ways to get there, tourists will continue to seek more down-to-earth exploration. And one of the new frontiers they are gravitating toward is right in our midst.

As technology catapults the world toward conformity -- blurring the distinctions between cultures, and causing economic and social borders to disintegrate -- a new trend in tourism has emerged. This new breed of visitor is not as attracted to "entertainment" experiences promoted by a destination as they are with connecting to the traditions of the destination itself, doing what the locals do, going where the "natives" go.

In response to this growing opportunity, VISIT FLORIDA (the state's tourism marketing organization) developed a program called "Downtowns & Small Towns." Destinations are encouraged to identify downtowns or small towns within their borders that reflect a distinctive local flavor.

For our destination, that place is Punta Gorda. With a deep-rooted sense of history, flourishing cultural and artistic resources, a thriving business community and beautiful waterfront locations, Charlotte County's only incorporated city has great potential for attracting this new breed of visitor.

The good news for destinations is that "cultural tourism" has value that can be measured in dollars and cents. For instance, cultural tourists create a larger economic impact, staying longer at a destination and spending nearly 30 percent more.

At its heart, cultural tourism celebrates a "sense of place," and reflects the local idiosyncracies that make each area unique. Visiting locations off the beaten path (or nestled within a small area of a major city), meeting new homegrown people, enjoying the cultural character of the community -- all these are the perfect antidote for our stress-filled modern lives.

It's no wonder cultural tourism has been growing steadily since the mid-1990s -- and promises to be an even stronger draw in the future.

Punta Gorda can fulfill many promises to the cultural tourist, but it will take a combined effort to make it a success. Humor at the "Downtowns & Small Towns" workshop in Delray Beach in October illustrated the basic requirement: What do Catherine Zeta Jones and dinosaurs have in common? "Good bones."

Punta Gorda has good bones. But humor aside, it requires incorporating issues such as design and planning, transportation, signage, development and collaboration. We have work to do.

One positive result of highlighting the benefits of our destination to others is it helps us appreciate the cultural tourism opportunities available ourselves. Perhaps we will be persuaded, along with our visitors, to all "go native."

Becky Bovell is the director of the Charlotte County Visitor's Bureau. She can be reached at (941) 743-1900 or via e-mail at becky.bovell@charlottefl.com.

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