Tourism creates jobs, but it's still a mixed bag


In the past few days, Twitter has been hopping with responses to the White House’s #VisitUS campaign. Initiated by President Obama’s speech on January 19th announcing new proposals to boost tourism (and the jobs that it creates), tweeters (tweeps) were invited to solicit visitation to their hometowns, and they have, in droves. “Rapid City SD – Most Patriotic City!” boasts one of the dozens of posts I scrolled past in one of my daily visits to the site.

Many of us here in the West are lucky enough to live in areas that are attractive to tourists, so we’re familiar with both the benefits and drawbacks of that industry. It does provide jobs, without a doubt, and boost economies. Unfortunately, it also can contribute to crowding, pollution, and other ills at popular sites (such as the Grand Canyon in my home state), and is subject to boom-and-bust cycles. Likewise, as right-leaning websites such as The Daily Caller were quick to point out, most tourism-related jobs are currently low-skill, low-wage hospitality industry positions, such as servers, maids, and groundskeepers. 

Despite the latest attempts at social media fueled boosterism, tourism is one of those complicated phenomena that cannot easily be diluted, by politicians or others, into neat sound bytes. It’s good and bad in varying degrees, and it’s probably disingenuous to contrast it with other industries, such as energy extraction, as The Daily Caller attempted to do by noting that the Keystone XL pipeline scheme would have generated some high-wage positions.

Tourists welcome. Image courtesy Flickr user Tony Case.

Having grown up in the hospitality business I’ve seen many faces of tourism (not all of them pretty). My family owned a few small motels and resort apartment complexes in tourist-friendly cities like Scottsdale and Flagstaff, Arizona, and my first jobs as an early teen included cleaning rooms and taking reservations. I was simply contributing to the family business, which mostly earned us a comfortable living (except in the “bust” cycles), but my fellow maids and clerks had a tough time making ends meet, even though they were paid well by local industry standards. Wages are dictated by volatile factors such as how many customers come in on a given day. It can be hard, tedious (and sometimes even unsafe) work that needs to be done, but it isn’t very nice.

Despite my mixed experiences, I’m still inclined to offer cautious applause for the Presidential endorsement. A small ray of hope -- for tourists and industry-workers alike -- is the ecotourism movement, which is gaining ground. I used to naively think that ecotourism consisted of staying at expensive off-grid lodges in exotic places, but it’s much more than that; according to the International Ecotourism Society, goals include sustainable operating practices and economic justice for local people.

Even mainstream small businesses like my family’s are buying in by saving water, using local suppliers, and hiring and mentoring locals. A recently published survey found that well over 50% of Arizona tourism-industry businesses, for example, subscribe to some or all of these practices. If the Obama initiatives are successful in spurring a re-growth of U.S. tourism, and if ecotourism practices continue to gain popularity, we may witness the development of a more-sustainable economy. It’s about time.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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