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Participants attending the 2013 Alabama-Mississippi Tourism Conference in Guntersville, Ala., learned numerous ways to bring in tourists to their rural communities. Everything from planning events that cater to canine enthusiasts, outdoor campers, American music lovers and players, to promoting fishing along the Alabama Bass Trail, to connecting local restaurants with local farmers to enhance culinary tourism.

This is the 13th annual Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference. Each year the conference rotates between Alabama and Mississippi. Its focus is always on helping Alabama and Mississippi rural communities capitalize on tourism opportunities.

Patti-Presley-Fuller, county Extension coordinator for Pickens County, was one of the planners of the original conference 13 years ago. "This annual conference provides us with valuable ideas that can help our rural communities bring people, money and businesses into our areas. Each year, I learn new ideas from others, that I bring back to my county."

Alabama Extension and the Economic and Community Development Institute at Auburn University provided 29 scholarships for Extension county coordinators to attend this year's conference.

"Community development as well as looking for opportunities to improve economic prosperity within a county or region is a critical function for county Extension coordinators within the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, says Stan Windham, assistant director for program operation innovations. 

"To be successful in these endeavors - CEC's want and need training and the opportunity to dialogue on these topics with their colleagues.  Each year the Alabama –Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference provides an excellent opportunity for CEC's to enhance their knowledge in these areas, learn about new resources available to them and discuss programming with experts and colleagues.  This in turn leads to more productive and successful programs within their counties in the areas of community and economic development," Windham says.

"The conference is a valuable tool for CECs," says Tony Glover, CEC from Cullman County. "It is interesting to hear what other communities are doing to draw in tourists." "We can all learn from other people's or communities' experiences. "Rural communities don't always have the ability to build something totally new for tourism, but if we find a way to capitalize on what we have, we can strengthen our community and build tourism opportunities on that."

Glover thinks Extension has a big role to play in rural tourism. "We don't necessarily take the lead in creating tourism opportunities, but we provide educational resources and leads for partner opportunities." Extension is great at getting different entities to work together."

Marianna and Andy Chapman, a husband-wife team behind EatJackson.com and EatYall.com created great interest in culinary tourism this year. The couple provides more than 115,000 readers the inside dish on local dining in the Jackson, Miss., metro area. EatYall.com tells the stories behind the people, places and ingredients that make up Southern food culture. The couple is passionate about growing the businesses of America's farmers and chefs.

Culinary tourism is experiencing the food of a region or area, and is now considered a vital component of the tourism experience. Dining out is common among tourists and food is believed to rank alongside climate, accommodation and scenery in importance to tourists.

"Sometimes there is a disconnect between farmers and restaurants," says Deacue Fields, an Extension agricultural economist and professor at Auburn University. "Restaurants are always looking for farmers to provide them with produce, and farmers are looking for restaurants to buy their produce. Somehow the two are not coming together as they should."

"Extension's Market Ready program is a wonderful training resource to bring the two groups together," Fields says. The curriculum teaches producers and farmers the requirements for farmers' markets and restaurants from crop start to harvest, and includes packaging, shipping, liability insurance and other vital information needed to bring their produce to the local community, whether that be through a farmer's market, local grocery stores or restaurants.

Using social media to drive food tourism activity also peaked conference participants' interests . Craig Helmuth with Tupelo Main Street, said the Tupelo Farmer's Market is using social media to successfully drive their food tourism movement. Their social media site has more than 110,000 regular followers.

Participants attending the 2013 Alabama-Mississippi Tourism Conference


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