Exploring opportunities beyond ‘big city’ tourism

Tourism is increasingly diversifying and expanding beyond the boundaries of major metropolitan centers

The word “tourism” often conjures up images of double-decker sight-seeing buses, gleaming skyscraper attractions and crowded shopping plazas. Fanny packs and baseball caps? Completely optional.

While many of these tourism tropes still ring true – and have their own merits and levels of economic impact – the landscape of modern tourism is increasingly diversifying and expanding beyond the boundaries of major metropolitan centers to their mid-sized counterparts.

In 2016, visitors to Vancouver and the surrounding areas spent $472.5 million on services and goods ranging from lodging and restaurants to shopping and entertainment. These figures from the Washington State Travel Impacts study conducted by Dean Runyan Associates represent an increase of 4.7 percent over the previous year, outpacing the state average. In fact, since the recession, visitor spending to the area has increased by more than 26 percent.

This growth has not been limited to Vancouver; other similar, mid-sized cities and communities neighboring larger cities have experienced a renewed interest in their tourism offerings. Tacoma, Eugene, Oakland and Sacramento have all seen visitor spending growth and an influx of new visitors to their destinations.

Of course, the West Coast’s major cities are no slouches. Visit Seattle and Travel Portland – the tourism offices tasked with promoting tourism to Seattle and Portland – regularly report robust increases in visitor spending to their respective destinations. Visitors continue to be interested in experiencing “big city” getaways, and there are no signs of that slowing down in the future.

What has changed is the number of Americans interested in travel, particularly among millennials. According to AAA, nearly one-third of travelers plan to take more time off in 2017 than 2016, and U.S. Travel reports that American vacation usage is on the most positive upward trajectory since 2000. More Americans traveling, means more room for “second tier” and “third tier” destinations to employ marketing efforts to lure aspiring weekend travelers and wanderlust seekers. The much-maligned millennials (full disclosure: that’s me), have expressed a greater interest in travel than baby boomers. One recent study by Boston Consulting Group has that interest level pegged at 23 percent higher.

This benefits smaller towns and mid-sized cities that can offer a welcoming sense of community and authentic experiences that appeal to a generation looking to enjoy life like the locals and, yes, Instagram it. Recent Portland expansions into Vancouver also reflect the shifting landscape of mid-sized cities from simply residential outposts to centers of food, culture and entertainment.

Hopworks Urban Brewery and Smokehouse Provisions both opened locations in Vancouver in 2016 – a first for their roster of Portland-based establishments. Similarly, the team behind Rally Pizza left Portland’s successful Ken’s Artisan Pizza to serve their own version of Neapolitan-crafted goodness to dining denizens north of the river. And, coming this summer, downtown’s Little Conejo will boast an impressive crew of culinary talent led by restaurateurs who have worked with much lauded hot spots Nodoguro and Noble Rot.

Such developments do not go unnoticed by tourists or the media they consume for travel inspiration. Alaska Airlines Beyond Magazine, Sunset and Northwest Travel have all recently described Vancouver as an up-and-coming city to watch, thanks in part to both the area’s rapid growth and the dutiful pitching of stories by the team at Visit Vancouver USA. Building off this praise, our organization has rolled out a new tourism marketing campaign targeting potential visitors in the South Sound area with television spots, online video, digital retargeting and bus wraps.

Of course, with the redevelopment of Vancouver’s waterfront now underway, there will be even more stories to tell and further incentive for travelers ready to try something new and scaled to a manageable size. Hang up your fanny pack: The game of “big city” tourism just got a whole new class of players.

Jacob Schmidt is the director of marketing and communications for Visit Vancouver USA, the primary destination marketing organization for Vancouver and Clark County.