Slow food, slow travel could build rural tourism

MORRIS, Minn – Lucky for small towns, many of the things they do best, like growing local food and wine and making things by hand, are now in vogue. That was the message at a filled-to-the-brim seminar on tourism and rural economies during the final day of the two-day Rural Arts and Culture Summit at the University of Minnesota Morris.

“Slow travel,” was the concept emphasized by Deborah McLaren, a consultant with St. Paul-based firm, Local Flavor. “It’s based on the slow food movement,” she said. “It means slowing down to enjoy your food, knowing where it comes from and meeting the people who raised it or cooked it or brewed it. It means slowing to the pace of a community. People want to come to your community and do these things.” She said slow travel, where tourists lollygag around sampling the local specialties, is huge in Europe, Asia and Africa.

McLaren suggested that small towns emphasize their food, natural landscapes, bike trails, cultural heritage and artisans in order to draw tourists from the cities and energize locals to support the small businesses in their midst. “There are growing numbers of local food festivals in Minnesota,” she said, mentioning a restaurant walking tour in Stillwater, the Meander art crawl (which also features food) along the Minnesota River in the western part of the state and others.

The tourism industry in the state last year brought in almost $12 billion in gross sales, she said. “I want more of that to go into your own pockets.”

Emphasizing what’s local and unique – such as barns in Caledonia, in the southeastern corner of the state, painted with traditional quilt patterns – represents the “epitome of sustainable tourism,” she said.

Partnering with existing wineries is another way to go, according to Local Flavor consultant Kent Gustafson. He said there are currently five wine trails in Minnesota and more than 40 wineries. People who drink wine tend to like art and local food as well. “There are a number of events that take place during wine trail weekends,” he said. “This can be a vehicle for you as artists in a variety of ways. They host different genres of music. They pair local food with their wines. There are art fairs and exhibitions.”

The key, said McLaren, is collaboration. Maybe one town in an area has a good restaurant and another has a bed and breakfast. They should work together. “Relationships are going from competitive to more cooperative,” she said. “Marketing and business, everything is becoming more cooperative.”

If the old model was top down, “the new model is the bazaar, an integrated place where people work together,” she said. “Maybe two people have the same products, but they are in the same bazaar, so they all do better.”