It's almost Labor Day and in my family, growing up, that meant vacation. It was always the time for travel and discovering new places, which of course is now an activity we call tourism. It is still the time I choose for getting away and as I write this, I am on my way to Morocco. I'm looking forward to many new arts, music, culture, craft, architecture and people discoveries.
Have you ever visited a city and, upon stealing a few moments to walk around the neighborhood of your hotel, found yourself admiring a public art display, or perusing crafts at a fair? I did both two weeks ago while visiting Des Moines, Iowa, mixing a little art with a little politics. I marveled at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the center of the city and loved the handcrafted woodwork in the Culture Building at the Iowa State Fair, while candidates for the presidency of the United States took to the State Fair's "soapbox" outside.
Can you think of a trip you took where you didn't see an interesting piece of art or fascinating architecture, or learned something new about the local culture? I bet you can't. The arts become a part of the travel experience even when that isn't the intent of a trip.
On a trip last summer to Alaska, the fiftieth state that I've visited, to attend a gathering of the National Lieutenant Governor's Association, I had a chance to visit some stunning places including the town of Homer. I got to see the colorful murals of the Homer Arts Council, some interesting environmental art in the salt marsh along the shore, and I stopped by Pier One Theater and toured the impressive Bunnell Street Arts Center, where I contributed a bit to the local economic impact. Homer is one of the most active arts communities in Alaska, and the beauty of Kachemak Bay inspires so many painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors and glass artists who live and work on the bay's shores.
Arts and culture are the expression of a community's heart and soul -- what best defines a locale to someone who has never visited before. For many travelers, arts and culture activities are a regular part of the travel experience. Over the course of three years, in the United States alone, 131 million people have participated in art, culture or heritage activities while traveling. This is 76 percent of all leisure travelers, with an economic value to the U.S. economy of $171 billion.
Some of our nation's communities are known for their works of public art and thus draw millions of visitors a year -- the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the St. Louis Arch, the Washington Monument. But the fact is that the arts are all around us, in cities and communities large and small. Many cities have linked the arts to tourism, drawing visitors to the region and spurring economic activity.
While Nashville is a top attraction for music lovers, the tiny town of Jonesborough draws cultural tourists, too. Tucked away in the Appalachian foothills of northeastern Tennessee, the town didn't have much in the way of attractions to lure visitors until the mid-1970s, when a local teacher started the first-ever gathering of storytellers. This simple affair has grown into the National Storytelling Festival, which drew upwards of 10,000 people in 2014 and generated significant economic activity for the region. The International Storytelling Center was opened in 2002 -- the first facility devoted solely to the tradition and art of storytelling. It's been estimated that in 2014, the center generated $7 million and created 111 jobs for this "storytelling capital of the world."
Cultural tourists should be a prime audience for destinations -- and they tend to stay longer and spend more money than the average tourist. Cultural tourism generates millions in spending on shopping, food and lodging. That is why today, so many cities and local elected leaders strongly link the arts to their tourism plans and promotional efforts.
Jonesborough, Homer, Nashville and Des Moines are among countless communities across the country that are investing in the arts to enhance civic pride while generating significant tourist revenue. Tourism, in turn, stimulates further growth as communities embrace their own identity and share it with visitors.
Perhaps you might already incorporate the arts into everything you do, but policymakers at the federal, state and local levels, in public and private settings need to hear these stories first hand. The arts, especially our not-for-profit arts treasures, remain undercapitalized. We need to encourage our elected leaders and our neighbors in general to take the time to explore the local arts scene the next time they are on a business trip or visiting family in another state. They should find out about upcoming festivals, an ethnic neighborhood, the local theater, an art exhibition or a literary reading. By doing so they will discover a little more about America. The arts are all around us -- let's get folks to go out and explore!