Before Walt Disney World, Orlando was all about oranges [source: Marlowe]. Las Vegas prior to casinos was a stop on the mail route between L.A. and Salt Lake City [source: Vegas]. Before the Monkey Buffet, an extravagant feast provided for a group of urban long-tailed macaques, Lopburi, Thailand was, well, more obscure than it is today.
Every tourist destination started somewhere. Some had throngs of out-of-towners thrust upon them; others sought them out like Lopburi's monkeys offered 9,000 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of food. Either way, attracting visitors attracts money, and few cities, regardless of size or character, can afford to pass that up.
Fending off lagging economies like everyone else, small towns are looking to attract the tourist bucks that typically land in the cash registers of big cities. Cities with amusement parks, slots or more than 10,000 residents.
Here are 10 small towns making a go at it, mostly by flaunting what they've got. A rural Oregon town that lost it all when logging left, now vying for hippie tourists. A 600-person village in disputed Middle East territory touting romantic tours, luxury living and cowboy food.
And in Indonesia, a little island marketing an asset not often considered all that attractive.
Population: 2,000 [source: Komodo]
Of all the things a quiet, Indonesian island has to offer, barren land supporting the largest population of one of the deadliest beasts on the planet is typically not on the short list. Komodo Island, in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province, is challenging that.
In fact, the island's hundreds of Komodo dragons do draw tourist interest, but officials are betting they can increase it with Sail Komodo, a boat festival, and the construction of a port capable of handling major cruise ships [source: Motlagh].
In 2012, Indonesia put more than $150,000 into promoting Sail Komodo and began training the local populace to make handicrafts they can sell at the event [source: Jakarta Post]. The cruise-port plan, which includes Komodo Island and more than a dozen other locations, aims to draw hundreds of thousands of new, high-income tourists by 2016, some of whom might take the time to glimpse the terrifying, 200-pound (90-kilogram) venomous lizards that roam Komodo National Park [source: Atmodjo].
Population: 6,200 [source: City Data]
Around the Great Lakes, most cities go with the "come see our beautiful beaches" approach, and it works nicely [source: Payette]. Manistee, Mich., aims to one-up its neighbors by adding history to the mix.
Manistee believes Michigan is missing out on a big segment of the traveling population: people who want to learn about, experience and shop history.
In 1871, when Manistee was in full Victorian form, a fire wiped out a section of downtown. That area has since been restored to its original glory, and tourists do wander the area. A visit to the town's history museum draws interest, too. Manistee is going bigger, though.
Believing heritage will draw retiring baby boomers (a coveted tourist sector) with inquisitive minds and money to spend, Manistee has restored its 19th-century lighthouse and now has two out-of-service 20th-century ships -- a steamship and a Coast Guard cutter -- docked in its waters, one of which turns into a "ghost ship" for Halloween [source: VMM].
And because "come see our history" can co-exist with "come see our beaches," the town has also established the Explore the Shores program, which aims to better market and improve access to Manistee's coastline [source: Explore the Shores].
Population: 223 [source: City Data]
The tiny town of Matoaka in West Virginia has a flooding problem. Officials there have been planning to dredge its creek for years, with the main goal of making the town safer for residents. But there's a second, rather lofty drive behind the dredging: Dry ground makes for happy ATV riders.
Matoaka has been vying to become part of the collection of ATV routes known as the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which would put the town on the map as a tourist destination for ATV riders [source: Jordan]. Flooding makes for a muddy trail, so the town hopes its project -- which involves moving sediment the entire length of the town -- will help it secure a link to the popular trail network through the Pocahontas Trail System, a West Virginia-based addition that opened in 2012 [sources: Jordan, HMT].
Population: 111 [source: City Data]
For a town with all of 111 inhabitants, Medora is actually doing quite well as far as tourism goes [source: Metcalfe]. It abuts Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in itself a big draw, and also holds a prime spot in the history of the Wild West. Medora was the starting point of a key Gold Rush trail to Deadwood.
In 2012, though, the town's mayor decided to boost Medora's tourist appeal, and he went bold: He would stage a gun fight, a trial and a mock hanging in the town, 20 minutes from start-to-finish (short attention spans and all), to give visitors a taste of the Old West. The catch? He would be the one hanging from the Hollywood-prop gallows [source: Smith].
The mayor's suggestion certainly achieved the goal of drawing attention. His plan was written about in newspapers around the world [source: Metcalfe]. Unfortunately for reenactment lovers, the mayor's idea was shot down by townspeople. They found it rather crude [source: Metcalfe].
Medora, then, will be sticking with its 200,000 visitors per year who come for the national park and stay a bit for the town's other attractions, including Wild West shows and a Medora-to-Deadwood horseback excursion, just like the speculators did it, only catered [source: Metcalfe].
Population: 600 [source: Merom Golan]
In the midst of disputed territory between Israel and Syria, where rockets land with some frequency, and where military action could be concentrated should that ages-old conflict escalate, "vacation resort" may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Kibbutz Merom Golan, an Israeli community in the Golan Heights, sees it differently [source: IPS].
Kibbutzim, traditionally communelike villages found throughout Israel, are often visited by tourists for the novelty of communal living in desert-rural settings. Kibbutz Merom Golan has taken that tourist interest much, much further.
Merom Golan, advertising "luxury accommodations" and fun for all ages and interests, offers private cabins and guided trail rides via four-wheeler, bike, jeep and horseback, with horseback lessons on-site. There are romantic sunset treks for the honeymooning types, and several full-service restaurants to choose from, including one serving meat-and-potatoes style meals (with all the meat raised responsibly in the Golan Heights) and hybrid fare like "cowboy kabobs" -- lamb and mint, on the grill.
To be fair, this particular kibbutz is out of the more dangerous territory. But still. Bold move.
Population: 3,200 [source: City Data]
By the 1990s, the decline of the Northwest logging industry had left Oakridge, Ore., in dire economic straits [source: Blancett]. Jobs disappeared. Stores closed. People left. That could have been the end of the story.
Oakridge, however, discovered something about itself: People very much wanted access to the 350 miles (563 kilometers) of nearby mountain-biking trails running through the stunning Cascade Mountains.
The former logging town had never been much for welcoming out-of-towners to its Lane County enclave, but a new generation of residents (and their marketing department) see it differently. Tourism, they believe, will help rebuild their community [source: Letson].
And so the town started calling itself the "Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest," and the rebranding stuck. The campaign's success in drawing tourism is clear, not just in numbers of visitors and new tourism-related jobs (at least 7,000 in Lane County) but also in the town itself: Residents note new stores, new restaurants (offering yogurt, granola and other mountain-biker-friendly foods), new homes and new families [sources: Travel Oregon, Letson].
Some members of the older logging generation aren't thrilled with the granola thing, but as the fruits of Oakridge's new branding start to show, they appear to be coming around [source: Letson].
Population: 1,470 [source: City Data]
Aspen. San Francisco. Sydney. Arles.
The "food festival," long the province of famous foodie destinations around the world, is slowly making its way into small towns that most gourmets would never think of. The village of Sauraha, at the base of the Himalayas and offering easy access to Chitwan National Park, has decided to get in on the action.
The first Sauraha Food Festival took place in February 2013, showcasing Nepalese food, particularly local delicacies, along with international fare and a pretty wide range of events, many refreshingly quaint [source: Hamal]. The festival features a tug-of-war, a soybean-eating contest, an alcohol-drinking contest (perhaps more surprising than quaint!), a pot-breaking contest, and team events that pit waiters against tourists [source: Hamal].
Oh, and there's a "Best Couple Award," too, the festival taking place over Valentine's Day and all, and a 25-percent discount for couples at local hotels [source: Hamal]. The folks of Sauraha hope the romance angle will attract tourists looking for some love with their gundruk (a Nepalese specialty dish).
Population: 3,500 [source: Odell]
The tourist draw of Red Bay, Ala., might be one for record books: RV servicing.
Tiffin Motor Homes, which produces and services its products in Red Bay, has been located in the small town since the 1940s, and the family-owned plant (which promises at least one Tiffin family member on-site at all times) has quite the loyal customer base [source: Tiffin]. Thousands of Tiffin-vehicle owners make trips from near and far to Alabama specifically to have their motor homes serviced at the plant, which offers its own amenity-laden campground and plant tours, too [source: Odell].
Red Bay, for its part, has decided to build on the Tiffin tourism. The town has no hotels as of 2013, but campers don't need them anyway. What they likely would love is the new kayak route, horseback trail and birding program being developed by the town to draw even more RV owners to the area -- and get them to stay there long after their motor home is finished with its tune-up [source: Odell].
Population: 1,470 [source: City Data]
Sure, city-wide free WiFi is all the buzz now, but back in the early 2000s, it was barely a glint in a marketer's eye. And yet, in 2003, a former logging town of fewer than 1,500 people implemented the first such system in the country with the intent of enticing tourists to stick around [source: City of Stevenson].
To put itself on the tourism map, the town of Stevenson took the expensive step of installing fiber-optic lines through its downtown and nearby recreation areas so visitors could easily get all of the information they needed to enjoy (and extend) their stay. Even now, with Internet-connected phones everywhere, the free WiFi lets tourists save their bandwidth. Oh, and find out from the Stevenson WiFi welcoming page exactly where they can spend their vacation dollars.
The WiFi landing page provides location-specific suggestions for dinner or day trips, along with live webcams showing the city's downtown, shoreline and events happening in the community. It is, the city says, a valuable promotional tool and one that makes their small town look big in technology terms. That can only increase its appeal to all the tourists carrying smartphones and tablets and expecting to find all the info they need before they even put their bags down [source: SRDC].
And, of course, it puts a permanent end to the laptop-carrying tourist's eternal question: "Does your café offer free WiFi?" Yes, yes it does. They all do. Beach, too.
Population: 1,000 [source: CensusViewer]
Of the 1,000 people residing in Von Ormy, Texas, just outside San Antonio, an abnormally large percentage should be in the movies.
Or so the town believes, and it's running with it. The mayor and a local film student teamed up in 2012 to found the Von Ormy Film Commission. The commission has two main goals: to promote the local directorial, screenwriting and acting talent; and to get themselves on Hollywood's "small-town backdrop" radar [source: Bailey]. Von Ormy wants to be the "location" in "shot on location."
To entice film lovers to the community, Von Ormy held its very first film festival in 2013 -- a rather timely zombie-focused one that includes both locally produced zombie flicks and classics like "Night of the Living Dead."
The San Antonio Zombie Response team was in attendance, just in case [source: Bailey].
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Author's Note: 10 Tiny Towns with Big Tourism Dreams
Don't mistake this article as depicting something revolutionary. Small-town tourism is old news. In Europe, for instance, off-the-beaten path locales draw big crowds looking for something other than Big Ben and the Louvre. Pretty much everywhere in Europe has a long history, and that's the draw.
What I learned while looking for information on burgeoning small-town tourism around the globe, and especially in the United States, is that Europe has known for some time what other countries are just finding out: Not every tourist has a Mickey Mouse-loving 5-year-old. Local art, storied histories and "rural living" are becoming attractions in their own right. This list is only a taste of what has become a concerted marketing effort to draw people to places they've never heard of, and I focused on towns only beginning their journey into tourism promotion.
For a fascinating case study on marketing and revitalization, take a look at Braddock, Penn. It's the Levi's town you've probably seen in ads, and what they've done there is, from what I gather, rather ground-breaking. Tourism isn't the focus, but it's an amazing example of what rebranding (and a corporate sponsor) can do for a small, struggling town.
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- Rapid City Journal. "Registration now open for Medora to Deadwood Trail Ride." Feb. 11, 2013. (Feb. 14, 2013) http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/communities/lead-deadwood/registration-now-open-for-medora-to-deadwood-trail-ride/article_2b225d14-7213-11e2-a3d3-0019bb2963f4.html
- Smith, Oliver. "US town plans mock execution to attract tourists." Telegraph UK. March 26, 2012. (Feb. 14, 2013) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/9166902/US-town-plans-mock-execution-to-attract-tourists.html
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