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Marketing Quality Rural Tourism

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Introduction: Putting feelings first

document type: article
keywords: tourism
source: LEADER technical dossier
last update: 3/95

Growing numbers of city-dwellers are "getting away from it all" in the countryside. This is the conclusion which could be reached after a glance at the literature on growth in rural tourism nearly everywhere in Europe. What is the true situation?

Rural tourism as an economic and social sector is experiencing full-blown growth, justifying constant rise in the number of operators (notably promoters and investors) taking an interest in it. Is this relevant?

The organisation and service provision in rural tourism suffer from chronic weaknesses as regards product definition and distribution performance. This eclectic landscape should consequently be "tidied up" to improve its response to the development needs of the countryside. Is this frequently expounded conviction well-founded?

Before replying to these three questions, there must be exact definition of what exactly is covered by the term "rural tourism", as done by Javier Calatrava Requena and Pedro Ruiz Avilés. Although use of the term is widespread and common to the majority of countries in the world, the underlying reality is highly varied and complex. Reduced here to agri-tourism (tourist accommodation on farms), it more often than not spans green, restful, alternative, different, local, open space, country tourism and even, for some, leisure parks and large chain hotels. Rural tourism exists, is growing and gives people enjoyment because it is different from "industrial" or mass tourism and away from over-crowded resorts.

One shared feature is that it is local tourism, tourism "of the area", sought after and controlled by local people. It is tourism where there is contact and experience sharing.

This type of tourism is local at five levels:

  • local initiative;
  • local management;
  • local spinoffs;
  • rooted in local scenery;
  • tapping local culture.

This is why it is proving attractive to a growing number of city-dwellers, who are especially drawn by its particularities because of the trend towards uniformity which prevails in towns. We should not, however, allow ourselves to be deluded: city-dwellers are primarily in search of themselves and of a personalised response to their need for emotional and social appreciation. The countryside, nature and the rural way of life just provide a suitable and reassuring setting giving a sense of security.

The more that the city is stressful (unemployment, insecurity, etc.), the more that the countryside is reassuring. The more that the present is aggressive, the more gentle that the past seems. The less that people have a sense of direction, the more they seek out those who are firmly rooted in their community.

The main quest of city-dwellers is for simple feelings, in a simple world where simple tasks are carried out. It could also be claimed that they are seeking real feelings in a real world, doing real things, were it not for the fact that they prefer safe feelings without personal commitment in a world created for them, taking part in pseudo-authentic activities.

Rural tourism know-how is to a large extent imbued in the open-spiritedness of country people, namely their ability to communicate, through words, attitudes, decor and actions, with city-dwellers who have lost touch with the countryside and nature, for whom the countryside is a new source of exotic experiences, of the supreme luxury of the simple things in life.

The country people who are most successful in tourism are those with sufficient intellectual distance from their country status to understand what is sought from them and to throw themselves unrestrainedly into it; those who offer, in man-sized businesses, services which appear personalised, although in reality they are standardised.

This is the point at which the problem of promoters and large investors arises. Rural tourism is concentrated in small and medium-sized enterprises and its central component is the individual. Aside from the recruitment and training of "fake" farmers to whom the management of rural tourism centres could be delegated or the financing of operations managed by local country people, it is difficult to see how large companies could organise rural tourism.

Although high performance tourism centres do exist in the countryside, by their very nature they fall outside the concept of rural tourism and are targeted on a different sort of clientele. Although it may be situated in the deepest countryside, a "Center Park" is more a kind of local tropical tourism than rural tourism.

The real issue is one of the nature of tourism; this also holds true when rural tourism is criticised for being too diffuse, individualist and poorly distributed.

Progress still has to be made in the area of service identification, sign-posting, organisation and distribution. Many LEADER groups have set off along this path. However, care should be taken that the hoped-for progress is not at the expense of the particularities and the "craft" nature of the tourism service.

The "failings" of rural tourism are paradoxically one of its key features. They are its hallmark. They reassure the customer, bringing the service provider closer.

The "rustic simplicity" is as attractive in the area of accommodation as it is in the packaging or market presentation of agri-foodstuffs. In both cases, it is taken as a sign of genuine quality, of an "authentic", "local" and "traditional" product which is not "over-processed and over-priced".

But this is where the shoe pinches: the product must at the same time satisfy all the safety and comfort requirements.

Applied to accommodation, this means both comfort and decor: a modern bathroom in a house with an open-beamed ceiling!

This is the constant contradiction faced by rural tourism. It must learn to manage this contradiction if it is to continue to meet the expectations of a clientele whose profile and characteristics are becoming more precise every year.

It is thus a question of striking a difficult balance between the values of the past and the demands of the present, between what is sought and what is consumed, between the expectations of the city and the realities of the countryside.

Henri Grolleau (*)

(*) This article has been published as an opinion forum in LEADER MAGAZINE N°4 (Autumn 1993).
Secretary General of TER ("Tourisme en Espace Rural", Paris, France), Henri Grolleau produced a study on "Rural Tourism in the Twelve Member States of the European Economic Community" in 1987, and a study on "Rural Heritage and Tourism in the EEC" in 1988, both on behalf of the Directorate-General for Transport (Tourism Service) of the Commission of the European Communities.

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