Credit to Jose Melgar as photographer_Cinco de Mayo
Photo Credit: Jose Melgar

Arts and Culture as Tourism Drivers for Ventura County

When you think of Ventura County as a travel and tourism destination, mother nature has certainly been kind: great weather, the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands National Park, and a postcard perfect California hillside and skyline.  With all these assets, and a lot of hard work from our tourism partners, it’s no wonder that our region is quickly becoming a key destination in the always hot Southern/Central California tourism and conference scene.

But once they arrive, what really makes or breaks a traveler’s experience?  It’s people!

A destination becomes that, a destination, because of its people.  They open the restaurants, bars, theaters, art galleries, and shops.  And together, these small businesses shape and define a destination’s “authentic” experience (more on what “authentic” really means in a bit).

Not surprisingly, our arts and cultural experiences, coupled with the natural amenities, are demand drivers in Ventura County. We are home international festivals and events. Top notch exhibits and performances take place year-round at our museums and performing arts centers.  And at the core of all of this is our vibrant local arts and culture scene, driven by nonprofits and artists, who creating murals, pop-up markets, block parties, and so much more across our county.

So how can we leverage Ventura County’s artistic and cultural assets to attract more visitors to our communities?  The answer is simple- continue to invest in these assets to make our communities great places to live.

I recently had the honor of providing the keynote presentation for the Visit Camarillo Annual Luncheon, held at the Historic Camarillo Ranch in December 2023.  In my preparation, I came across the Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) study The Impact of Culture on Tourism.   Here’s a TLDR quote from the Executive Summary that I feel sums up the findings nicely:

“The most successful destinations are those which recognize the wider implications of the relationship between tourism and culture, particularly in terms of attracting new residents and inward investment.”

Unpacking the OECD study a bit, here are a few of my key takeaways:

  1. Most importantly- invest in the local community for the sake of investing in the local community. Cities become great destinations because they are first and foremost great communities. Strong communities will naturally attract visitors, new residents, and inspire further investment.
  2. Develop and nurture partnerships between the tourism and cultural sectors. There’s already a natural alignment here, but by prioritizing collaborations, the sectors can work together to achieve shared goals.
  3. Measure and report successes- Knowing what’s working (and what’s not working!) and communicating this to decision makers will in turn lead to better policy.
  4. Build on these above to develop local and regional marketing alliances and partnerships. Here, government agencies and the tourism and arts and culture sectors can work together to create regional destination branding.

These strategies echo those of cultural tourism meccas in Europe like Barcelona and Glasgow, which are case studies in the OECD report. But take note, it is certainly an incremental, long-term approach.

Think of it as a secret sauce recipe for cultural destinations: one part dedication; two parts hard work; and five parts time.  Let it simmer long enough (don’t forget to stir frequently and season along the way!), and soon enough the end you’ll have your “authentic” cultural experience that generates multi-night stays, packs restaurants, and sells out shows, all celebrating your local arts and culture scene.

Now to the “A” word – “authentic”.  Another thing I took away from the OECD study is that authenticity is elusive- It’s going to be different for each resident and visitor.

But here’s the good news- it is in this very difference where you can discover your “authentic” community. So, celebrate everything that makes your community what it is, even its quirks, and no matter how fringe. Portland, Oregon’s unofficial motto is a great example: “Keep Portland Weird.”

And now for the great news- the tourism and Arts and Culture sectors in Ventura County are already doing so much of this. Visit Oxnard installed murals at the Oxnard Transit Center welcoming visitors and residents alike. Visit Ventura maps the cultural assets of their city and has a mural guide for Ventura Avenue. This is in addition to countless arts and culture related events these organizations sponsor, promote, produce, or otherwise support.

Visit Camarillo even went as far as to have the County “arts guy” deliver a keynote presentation at their flagship event.

“Centering the arts,” as we like to say in the field.

I’d say here in Ventura County, the arts are being centered quite nicely.

David Yoshitomi is the Arts and Culture Manager for the County of Ventura.  Much of his work is focused on leading the County’s arts, culture and creative economy strategic planning efforts, with a personal goal of supporting the creative spirit of every Ventura County resident.

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