The Happiest Place on Earth?

There are a few topics that rear their ugly heads in the newspaper from time to time that I’m always sure will raise the hackles of our readership no matter what is said about them. Abortion. Gun control. Same-sex marriage. The death penalty. Tourism.

Yep, tourism. Utter the word, and I guarantee you’ll get a spirited response, no matter how one feels about the subject. On Thursday, Melissa deCordova did a pair of stories about the subject, showing how state funding for tourism has been cut, and how Chenango County has been largely left out of the proverbial loop.

Mention “tourism,” and invariably the response from the native populace is “You’ve got to be kidding.” That’s because, I surmise, most people equate tourism with DisneyWorld – as if someone has the vision that if we try hard enough, or spend enough money, we will someday have busloads of Japanese tourists, cameras in hand, milling about our rural environs and gaping in awe and wonderment as if we were indeed the Happiest Place on Earth.

We’re not DisneyWorld, folks, and we never will be. And no one’s thinking that we will. But that doesn’t mean that tourism isn’t a very real and very vital piece of our economic puzzle. I’ve never advocated that we should spent a truckload of money on it, but promoting Chenango County’s assets to the outside world is every bit as important as appreciating them ourselves.

What assets, you may ask? We don’t have a theme park, a national monument, a casino or even a gargantuan shopping mall. But we do have a lot of draws for people coming in from around the state, and in some cases, even around the country. We’ve got a great lineup of festivals and events – the Antique Car Show, Gus Macker, the County Fair, the Blues Festival, Colorscape Chenango and the Pumpkin Festival. (And that’s just in Norwich!) We’ve got some stellar standing attractions, like the Northeast Classic Car Museum or the Earlville Opera House. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve got a largely pristine rural landscape that’s wallpaper for us, but a spectacle to those accustomed to walls of concrete and steel.

The biggest problem with tourism is that the people who live in the area being “toured” to don’t see the forest, only the trees. We take what we have for granted, and wonder why anyone would leave their greener pastures to come here. But it does happen. Not in tour buses or cruise ships, but a lot more than you think. Since we’ve built it, and when they come, they bring their wallets and they spend their money at our stores, restaurants and hotels. And then they go home and tell other people about Chenango County, and they come and visit. Some even come to live – to retire or to start anew. It’s a lucrative circle that happens largely away from our collective eye, that doesn’t always manifest itself in suitcases of money, but nonetheless contributes healthily to our economy, our quality of life, and our reputation.

That’s why I was disappointed to learn we’d been under-represented at the recent tri-county meeting to “re-brand” our collective tourist identity. I’d bet a week’s pay that most of you didn’t know we lived in the “Central Leatherstocking Region.” Make that six months for anyone who even knows what a “Leatherstocking” is.

Stop thinking of “tourism” as a dirty word, or a waste of time and money. It should never be our top priority, but then again it should never be off the list entirely. Even if we end up as the 48,675th Happiest Place on Earth, we’ll be sitting pretty.

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