Rural tourism challenges and opportunites – survey results

Downtown Grand Haven Michigan how do they deal with rural tourism challenges
Charming downtowns like this one in Michigan, natural beauty, committed locals - there are rural tourism challenges, for sure, but also opportunities. Hear directly from rural folks themselves.

Let’s get some tourism-related highlights from the 2023 Survey of Rural Challenges.

Since 2015, our friends and colleagues Becky McCray and Deb Brown at SaveYour.Town have run an important survey.

It does a “pulse check” on what rural people themselves view as their challenges, and also the positive developments they are seeing in their communities.

We asked Becky and Deb to sift through their brand-new 2023 survey results, and give us some highlights that relate to rural tourism challenges and opportunities.

Here are Becky’s insights . . .

“The 2023 results of the Survey of Rural Challenges were just released. They offer some interesting insights into rural tourism challenges, and the perceived strengths and weaknesses that affect tourism and travel for small towns and rural destinations.

One of the most encouraging findings is that rural residents are twice as likely to be optimistic about their community’s future as negative or pessimistic.

This suggests a real sense of resilience and community spirit that can be a strength for developing tourism assets.

Rural Community Assets Are All About Tourism

When describing their communities’ assets, tourism came first. Almost 2/3rds of the people mentioned natural resources, land, outdoor recreation, location, and tourism.

This suggests that rural people value natural beauty, scenic landscapes, and unique outdoor activities for themselves as residents, and as assets that attract visitors.

Rural communities also consider their people a vital resource.

Committed people, volunteers, an engaged community, workforce, and effective local leaders were mentioned in almost half of the survey answers. Of course, not-so-committed people and the lack of people in small towns were also mentioned as a weakness.

Rural places have great people, just not enough of them.”

[As Becky and Deb so often eloquently say, you can’t keep relying on the STP – Same Ten People – to do everything in your town.]

Becky continues – “Another vital asset that rural communities offer is their events, arts, education, and culture. These came up in almost a third of the comments. While policies and budgets don’t always reflect these priorities, it’s encouraging to see rural people valuing artists, musicians, and cultural experiences.

Community events like festivals, local shopping, farmers markets, parades, and local sports came up over and over again. Tourism trends emphasize experiences, and there is no experience like joining a small town’s community event.

The challenge is population. ‘Not enough people’ often means not enough people to maintain heritage and culture events.

Related – social media content ideas for heritage and cultural tourism based on the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Rural Culture Elements

Local businesses are also a significant asset for rural communities.

Local businesses, a thriving downtown, the variety of local businesses, business development, and agriculture featured in 28% of responses.

When we asked businesses about their assets, they mentioned trying new ideas and using up-to-date marketing techniques most often.

Business people explained ideas they had tried including creating their own events, changing their products and services, and adding whole new lines of business, among many other innovations.

Rural Challenges

The challenges that topped the survey are ongoing issues, including a lack of housing, inactive downtowns, and population losses.

The lack of childcare appeared in the top 5 challenges facing rural communities for the first time.

This is an issue that is often overlooked in discussions of rural life, but one that clearly has a significant impact on rural families and businesses.

Rural business owners also reported needing help with marketing, starting a business, or receiving economic development incentives like those offered to out-of-town firms.

The ongoing lack of workers and support services is also a major challenge for rural small businesses, as is competition from online businesses.

Survey of Rural Challenges 2023 infographic
Sure, you can download, share, and embed this summary infographic of the 2023 Survey of Rural Challenges, with credit to SaveYour.Town


Worth noting – the survey found that rural people are not primarily concerned with issues like poverty, crime, and drug abuse.

While these are certainly issues in some communities, they were ranked near the bottom, lower than lack of housing, inactive downtowns, and population losses. This reflects a more nuanced picture of rural life than some media accounts might suggest.

Rural communities have their own unique strengths and challenges that need to be understood.

Although rural economic development often centers around jobs, the lack of jobs was one of the least-mentioned challenges in this survey. Rural people mentioned available jobs or good jobs as often as mentioning a lack of jobs or low paying jobs.

For all the reports of a lack of small business lending, rural people said usable buildings are harder to find than business loans, a continuing trend from previous surveys.

Rural small business owners showed little or no interest in business plan assistance and pitch competitions, yet these types of assistance continue to be commonly offered to rural businesses.

Tourism and destination professionals trying to boost their business partners may be better focused on personal expert coaching than plans and pitches.

In Their Own Words

In the open-ended answers, rural people shared their tourism assets and challenges.

Here are some of their own unedited stories . . .

  • ‘Downtown is really growing with lots of new businesses. This is bringing in an increase of tourism.’
  •  ‘Tourism around beaches; community events (trunk or treat, agricultural festivals, parades) become intergenerational gatherings; fundraising through arts, running events, fishing tournaments; town sports for youth.’
  •  ‘We have a great tourism industry revolving around our river, craft breweries, and boutique shopping. We have great schools and a picturesque downtown.’
  •   ‘We have an event space and have worked to create our own events instead of letting events come to us.’
  •  ‘I work in tourism. What irks us is that established businesses (the few we have) won’t commit to staying open certain hours. They operate more like ‘hobbies’ than mainstays that will help the town and its visitors.’
  •  ‘Water pollution is a real problem and threatens tourism and quality of life.’
  •  ‘We personally operate a bed and breakfast. This business has motivated me to help my community in the hospitality and tourism industry. We’ve provided a higher end, southern hospitality environment that can be used as a catalyst for other tourist-related business startups. Providing more tourism destinations will help more bookings and retail opportunities. There are no paid tourism positions and there is no transient investment. There is a great group of volunteers who need help with capacity. Demand is high for vacation lodging with over 40 individual rentals, mostly Airbnb. A more cohesive collaboration between vacation rental businesses would help. A program to bring community organizations together with county and city officials is a must in order to grow.’

Survey Details

A PDF report of the survey results plus more resources are available at SaveYour.Town.

The survey was open from November 11, 2022 to January 31, 2023. A total of 315 responses were collected online from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and, from media coverage, and from cooperating groups that publicized the survey.

The 315 respondents identified themselves as rural by completing the survey, and 206 identified themselves as business owners by responding to the business question.

Participants included 295 from the USA, 11 from Canada, and six from Australia.

Based on SaveYour.Town customer data, most respondents likely serve as community leaders and officials, work in community and economic development, own their own businesses, work in a community-oriented business, or volunteer informally in their community.

Reports of all the survey results from 2015 through 2023 are available at”

What do you think of these survey results?

In particular, can digital marketing and social media help with some of the rural tourism challenges that Becky mentions?

Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.


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Screenshot of results May 2023 Tourism Currents LinkedIn Page poll about using AI

Speaking of data, here 👆🏻 are the final results of a recent poll on our LinkedIn Page. 

Remember our recent personal thoughts about the current state of tourism marketing?

We recommended experimenting with AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools like ChatGPT, then we wondered who was already doing that, so we ran a poll on our Tourism Currents LinkedIn Page.

The results are in that screenshot above.

Bottom line at least with our particular audience is that no, “everyone” is not jumping on AI tools. We think it’s important to experiment, but don’t get railroaded by the digital marketing hype machine.

We do plan a deeper dive soon with our own AI experiences and further advice.

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