March 10, 2022
Over the course of 2019, the travel and tourism industries generated $1.9 trillion in economic output and supported 9.5 million American jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. That's more than the agriculture, mining, and utility sectors each that same year.
And then came COVID-19.
Now, two years into the pandemic, the sector remains so unpredictable that the National Travel and Tourism Office of the Department of Commerce has indefinitely suspended its annual Forecast for International Travel to the United States. After two years of COVID chaos, communities are wondering: Is tourism still a viable economic development strategy?
For many, the answer remains yes — but with some new considerations. With an eye on recovery and stability, communities with tourism-dependent economies are looking for ways to stimulate new industries through tourism, take advantage of local assets, and better support the people who live and work there year-round.
Take Providence, Rhode Island. Branded and marketed as "The Creative Capital," the city is advancing an economic development strategy that weaves tourism development with the city's arts and cultural sectors — and makes good use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the COVID relief and recovery package signed into law in March 2021.
"[We have] a dual mission to integrate arts and culture into community life while showcasing Providence as an international cultural destination," says Stephanie Fortunato, director of the city's Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism.
A creative approach to economic development
As the home of Rhode Island School of Design, the Ivy League Brown University, and culinary arts powerhouse Johnson & Wales University, Providence leans hard into its cultural assets to attract tourists and create jobs for residents.
In 2021, the city released a draft of its updated cultural plan, PVDx2031: A Cultural Plan for Culture Shift. PVDx2031 emphasizes the importance of partnerships between the city, local creatives and designers, cultural organizations, and the tourism industry. It also underscores the importance of elevating BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ+ voices in strategic planning efforts and leadership roles.
Specifically, some of the key takeaways include "a call for advocacy that manifests living wages for artists; strengthens overall value of the arts; addresses resource distribution; generates access to space and opportunities; and, overall, calls for investment in locals," according to the plan draft. It also emphasizes mitigating climate impacts through land-based projects and using arts and culture to acknowledge and repair historical trauma stemming from the city's ties to slavery and colonization of Indigenous lands.
"We are always weighing the needs of residents and businesses with those of visitors to the city," says Fortunato. "This balancing act is certainly present as we think about the city's recovery."
This plan is likely to have some teeth as the city gets ready to deploy federal recovery funds.
"Mayor [Jorge] Elorza's proposed plan for using the city's American Rescue Plan funding addresses not only the needs of art tourism and hospitality, but also considers how this fits in amidst all of the other areas of investment needed for Providence not just to recover, but to thrive," says Fortunato.
The plan proposes $7.7 million in Art Tourism and Hospitality funding to support investment in the creative industries and partner sectors, aiming to create jobs in each of the city's 25 neighborhoods. This investment also aims to shore up Providence's position as a cultural destination, earmarking more than $4 million for expansion and improvement of cultural facilities, $1.2 million to support development of cultural events, and nearly $1 million to create public art aimed at encouraging tourism, among other arts-related investments.
Much is riding on this focus on cultural tourism. With the slow recovery of business travel and large group events, Providence hotels are still struggling.
"Occupancy has plummeted," says Fortunato. "Providence has not fully recovered because meetings, conventions, and sports are the backbone of the tourism economy here."