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Tourism: an opportunity for disadvantaged rural areas?

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

Tourism seems to offer a natural development path for rural areas in Europe, particularly the most disadvantaged of them. In 71 of the 217 LEADER I areas, it is the dominant activity in the business plans of the local action groups.

The force of attraction exercised by rural tourism finds its roots in both the supply side and the demand side.

- On the supply side, heightened productivity in the secondary and tertiary sectors and the reduced appeal of big cities have considerably slowed rural population outflow. However, the best qualified young people are continuing to leave rural areas. This has resulted in serious economic, social and cultural stagnation in the countryside. Rural communities are gradually becoming aware of the fact that their development will not be exogenous and that they must invest local resources in economic activities which have a good chance of being competitive.

Among the range of potential activities, rural tourism combines several assets which make it, in many cases, a potential enhancer of local development. Although tourism therefore enjoys a strategic advantage, there are a great deal of pitfalls along the way. Careful planning of the range of tourism products on offer in each specific case is therefore essential.

- On the demand side, substantial growth in recent decades in demand among city-dwellers for recreational and leisure activities in the countryside has been the driving force behind the emergence of a wider range of tourism products at local level. Demand is heterogeneous however: each type of customer must be offered a specific type of tourism, requiring prior identification and adaptation of the product.

A selective approach to demand in line with supply-side possibilities and with the local economic context - from the standpoint of integrated development of the area - is therefore necessary for the success of rural tourism initiatives.

A question of definition

"Rural tourism", "agri-tourism" and "green tourism" are terms requiring an explanation. They cover a range of contexts giving rise to different concepts, the meaning of which is a source of discord between authors. With a few exceptions, existing literature on the subject, including that of the European Community, is divided into two main trends:

- in the first, the distinction used is the percentage of tourism revenue which benefits the rural community. From this standpoint, a distinction is made between tourism in the countryside, rural tourism and agri-tourism (each of these categories is a derivative of the subsequent one, like concentric circles), according to the percentage of revenue benefiting the population as a whole or, in the third case, farmers in particular.

- in the second, the distinction is based on the various constituent elements of supply. Therefore tourism is termed rural tourism when the rural culture is a key component of the product on offer. Depending on the primary activity component of this product, the terms used are agri-tourism, green tourism, gastronomic, equestrian, nautical, hunting, historical/cultural tourism and so on.

Tourism activities revolving around large holiday home developments, big hotels, golf courses or ski pistes are difficult to integrate into the concept of rural tourism. The distinguishing feature of tourism products in rural tourism is the wish to give visitors personalised contact, a taste of the physical and human environment of the countryside and, as far as possible, allow them to participate in the activities, traditions and lifestyles of local people. There is a strong cultural and educational element in this form of leisure tourism; studies conducted on this subject show that the majority of enthusiasts of rural tourism, who are mainly from the middle or upper classes, attach great significance to local values and to the local cultural identity. This definition of rural tourism is the one used in this article.

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