Rural-urban linkages

Tourists have been drawn to Asheville (population 87,000) (US Census Bureau, 2015) for decades and throughout that history, they have likely encountered a blended rural-urban experience. The Biltmore Estate, first opened to the public in 1930, served as both the area’s first ‘farm-to-table’ destination and a long-standing liaison between rural and urban tourist constituencies and experiences. As part of their visit to the Estate, visitors learn that George Vanderbilt founded the nation’s first school of forestry and Biltmore Dairy was a commercial powerhouse for decades. More recently, the Biltmore’s winery opened to the public (1985), on-site restaurants feature estate-grown products and, in 2010, new exhibits at Antler Hill Village began highlighting the Estate’s agricultural history (Biltmore, 2013). The Blue Ridge Parkway, with its 469-mile (754 km) long stretch of scenic motor road stretching from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, also provides a long-standing rural-urban connection for WNC visitors. The road itself is a literal point of connectivity between rural and urban areas. In many places, pastures line the road providing visitors with the opportunity to view, and in some cases experience, traditional mountain agricultural practices. Millions of tourists each year experience both rural and urban WNC via a trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Within the past two decades, however, the links between ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’ tourist experiences have been amplified due in large part to the increased intentionality of farm and food tourism in WNC, especially agritourism. Agriculture is an industry that has often been described as ‘multifunctional’ (Knickel and Renting, 2000) because it not only provides food, fibre and timber, but can also provide scenic amenities, flood control, pollination, water filtration and other ecosystem services, as well as recreation and a link to a region’s cultural heritage. When a region is already a draw for natural amenity-seeking tourists, amplifying the recreation ‘function’ of agriculture via agritourism is a natural fit.

In 2012, one-third of North Carolina’s agritourism operations were located in WNC (Xu and Rich, 2014). If we broaden our definition of agritourism to include any operation with direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales (Schilling et al., 2014), such as those made at farm stands and pick-your-own operations, the dominance of WNC’s enterprises within the state becomes clear. According to the Census of Agriculture, DTC sales in NC increased 9% between 2007 and 2012 (USDA, 2014). However, in WNC, sales grew 69% (ASAP, 2014). In addition, in contrast to both the state-wide and national trends, the region added an impressive 10,000 acres of farmland in the same period (USDA, 2014). The relative strength of agriculture in WNC is no doubt due to the dispersed but coordinated efforts to rebuild the local food system, of which farm and food tourism plays an important role.

Several key elements are working to sustain the rural-urban connections. One is the longstanding heritage tourism tradition of both Asheville (urban) and rural WNC more generally, especially around craft and music. While most craft and music are produced in rural areas, their consumption, either in the form of viewing/listening or purchasing, has traditionally relied on Asheville’s urban market. Another feature that helps bind rural and urban tourism is that natural amenities have long been a draw for both WNC residents and visitors alike. The scenic beauty of the mountain landscapes is the primary attraction for visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mathews et al., 2003) as it was to George Vanderbilt over a century ago (The Biltmore Company, 1997). Much of this scenic beauty is tied directly to agricultural land, with one of the most iconic viewsheds being composed of pasture land in the foreground with forested hillsides in the back, reflecting the traditional small-scale, diversified agricultural practices that have predominated the region.

The region’s water resources also promote farm and food tourism in WNC. While there are plenty of water recreators in the region, WNC is one of the top kayak destinations in the country, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center attracts over one million visitors every year (Bacon, 2013). The abundance and pristine quality of the water in the region means that industries, such as craft brewing, are a natural fit for the area. While there are no comprehensive data that capture its volume, it is clear that a significant amount of craft beverage tourism is taking place in WNC, especially around craft beer. Asheville is currently home to 18 breweries (a number that grows each year), which gives the city the highest brewery-per-capita ratio in the nation (Bland, 2014). Forty-four of the 46 breweries in WNC are locally owned (T. Kiss, Craft Beverage Reporter, Asheville Citizen- Times, personal communication, 3 February 2016), a clear sign of community embeddedness.

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