There is an age old debate about the contributions to progress from rural areas. Traditionally, the conversations go straight to GDP as the measure of progress and focus on the export potential of natural resources. A conversation that often focuses on the myth that communities are dying and resisting opportunities to exploit resources.

I am going to challenge that line of thought and suggest that many rural regions have actually innovated past those traditional views. First, in how progress is measured and second is how that progress is supported through community-led innovation in one of the fastest growing export services: eco-tourism.

As I’ve previously written, it’s natural to regard urban centres as the drivers of innovation and economic growth, especially if you depend primarily on gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of growth and progress. However, there are more holistic ways to measure progress like the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) that measures economic, social, and environmental factors and the seventeen Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Whether intentionally or by happenstance, rural community residents often analyze development decisions through a lens that weighs the expected outcomes through a GPI lens rather than a GDP lens. Consider the now familiar resistance or unwillingness of some rural residents to exploit natural resources: listen to what rural communities are expressing as priorities and it will all make a bit more sense.

Rural residents often evaluate a project’s value by analyzing both the classic GDP economic figures and social and environmental factors because all of these factors align with the values that caused them to choose to live in their rural community. It is an and/and consideration; not an either/or.

It is through that lens that they approach government, their urban neighbours, and investors who come to town. Knowing this makes things make a bit more sense for the outsider looking in.

Which leads us to one of the sectors that rural communities are looking to more and more as an opportunity for progress — tourism. Tourism is Canada’s number one service export and it is growing quickly (or at least it was pre-COVID-19). It is a major job creator with over 1.8 million Canadians working in tourism, 56 per cent in rural communities.

In recent years travellers have placed great value on seeking out vacations that placed an emphasis on nature, cleanliness, fresh air and open spaces. The places that successfully developed authentic experiences with a stunning natural backdrop have become highly-valued and somewhat exotic. What could be any better than an Instagram post from a place no one you know has visited? Take a look at your social media feed today, Canadians are seeking out places in their own backyard that are places of legend that few know how to access. It’s a thing.

Exactly one year ago, the Canadian National Tourism Strategy was launched. I had the pleasure of working on this file while in government. The strategy, and by extension, the Government of Canada recognizes the value of tourism as a growing service export. It is considered a service export as foreign visitors purchase goods and experiences and grow the national input.

The strategy reveals that the real potential for tourism growth is in our country’s secondary markets and it lays out a plan to break down the barriers to growth. Canada’s tourism sector is currently concentrated in a few central locations and it is very seasonal — and for good reason. This is a large country and Canada’s natural beauty isn’t always easily accessible, which means we have challenges with either underdeveloped or a complete lack of transportation options and other infrastructure. There’s also a lack of investment, both public and private in developing this sector.

While working on this initiative I came to recognize the opportunity before us to harness the potential of rural and remote communities through increased investment in tourism most notably, Indigenous tourism, shoulder season and winter tourism, farm-to-table experiences, and inclusive tourism that offers a safe place for the LGBTQ2 community to travel.

All of these pillars draw us back to the potential of protecting and showcasing our natural environment, while building stronger communities, and increasing the GDP. It opens the door for a rural renaissance as residents, entrepreneurs, conservationists, farmers and fishers come together to plan out a sustainable and regenerative future.

A future that not only focuses on the visitor experience but also on building communities where people want to live and are proud to share their heritage, culture, natural environment and innovation. Pride in place: that’s an investment worth making.

Deep Change

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