Western Carolina University is taking significant new steps to boost the Western North Carolina travel and tourism industry by becoming an additional destination for visitors in search of cultural arts and heritage-based activities.
That was the word Thursday, Nov. 15, from WCU Chancellor John Bardo, who opened a daylong conference on cultural and heritage tourism. The gathering, which attracted about 300 students and travel industry leaders to Western’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center, was organized by the WCU Public Policy Institute.
“It went very well,” said PPI Director Gordon Mercer. “We thought we had the state’s top speakers on cultural and heritage tourism including Gordon Clapp, the immediate past Director of Tourism, Sports and Film for the state of North Carolina.”
Mercer said that many people said this was the best conference WCU has ever had.
“Involving many cultures is a priority of the WCU Public Policy Institute,” said Mercer. “In a recent address, Senator John Edwards called the WCU Public Policy Institute’s mission of bringing citizens together to discuss policy and the bringing of university and community together one of North Carolina’s most important undertakings,” Mercer said.
Bardo, citing data collected during a recent study of regional travel and tourism trends, told those in attendance that steps must be taken to increase the amount of time visitors spend in WNC, which will in turn increase the amount of money they spend in the mountains.
The average length of stay for the typical tourist in WNC is less than one day, Bardo said.
“People, on average, tend to drive through, not to, Western North Carolina. They come, and they go,” he said. “We must create increasing numbers of destinations and attractions that will draw people to the region and keep them here for longer periods of time. Cultural and heritage tourism and eco-tourism would have a tremendous impact on the ability of our region to create additional overnight guests.”
Keeping visitors in the area for just one overnight stay would impact the region’s economy to the tune of $600 million annually, he said. The university is planning to play a role in that effort in many ways, Bardo said:
– A two-day summer jazz and arts festival, the CulloWHEE! ArtsFest, will be unveiled in June as the first major WCU effort to provide music, theatre, dance and fine arts programming demanded by an increasingly sophisticated traveling population. The festival will feature nationally known jazz artists The Manhattan Transfer, David Sanborn, Joe Sample and Bio Ritmo, along with other regional and local acts, and fine arts and crafts.
– Completion of the new Fine and Performing Arts Center, a $30 million, 121,000-square-foot facility being built near the center of campus, will enable the university to enhance its cultural arts programming, with space for national art exhibitions, full-scale Broadway theatrical productions and first-rate music concerts.
– Planned improvements within WCU’s hospitality and tourism management program will mean additional support for the travel industry by producing well-trained graduates in restaurant, hotel and resort management.
– Ongoing improvements to its athletics program, which already draws overnight guests into the area, should increase the number of out-of-town visitors who attend intercollegiate sporting events.
In the keynote address, Clapp told the crowd that while segments of the travel industry may experience a slowdown in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “people are not willing to give up their holidays. They may hold off on that trip to Europe, but they will still travel to areas closer to home.” And that may benefit the WNC tourism industry, especially small-town businesses that are related to cultural arts or American heritage, Clapp said.
“The potential for strengthening the tourism sector of the economy is great, and it is even greater for the five- to six-hour-drive market,” he said. “There is a greater pull for small towns, and the cultural attractions of the mountains reinforce American values and American life.”
Clapp urged the regional tourism executives to take stock of what their towns and counties have to offer to cultural and heritage tourism travelers, who typically are better educated, spend more money and stay longer.
As the world gets more high-tech, there is greater demand for experiences that are high-touch,” he said. “We often overlook what we take for granted and what is in our own backyard. Identify what makes you unique, and what differentiates your community from others.”
The conference, titled “Creating the Spirit of Community: Cultural and Heritage Tourism,” consisted of three panels examining travel industry issues, followed by policy discussions and recommendations for initiatives to improve cultural and heritage tourism in WNC. A policy report will be issued at a later date.
Mark Revis contributed to this article.