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Garden tourism benefits the economy and much more

Here’s something to think about: More people visit gardens annually in the United States than visit Disneyland and Disney World combined, and more than visit Las Vegas in any given year, according to Richard W. Benfield, author of the upcoming book, “Garden Tourism.”

Western New Yorkers may have noticed the growing interest in visiting gardens in our own region, but might also be surprised to find that our experience is parallel to emerging garden tourism growth throughout many countries.

This week the Canadian Garden Tourism Council awarded organizations and individuals from Canada and eight other countries for “development and promotion of the garden experience as a tourism attraction.” The statistics show that increasing numbers of people are traveling to see public and private gardens. Consequently, municipalities, organizations and individuals would be wise to invest in the trend.

What is garden tourism? Flower shows (the recent Philadelphia Flower Show and Canada Blooms and this weekend’s Plantasia in Hamburg) come to mind first as one element of garden tourism. However, Benfield and the Canadian and international garden tourism analysts are defining garden tourism as travel in which the destination is a park, garden, flower-themed festival or a series of gardens – whether public or private.

In North America, garden tourism destinations include the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and botanical parks and gardens, including the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, Buffalo Olmsted Parks and Canada’s network of Royal Botanical Gardens. In the United States, the concept of private “Open Gardens” and garden tours is gaining popularity, the two largest private garden tour events being the statewide Virginia tour, in second place, and Garden Walk Buffalo in first. In short, people are coming to see gardens, and analysts are asking why and what we can do to keep up with the passion?

The why has many components. At the International Garden Tourism Conference this week in Toronto, Benfield remarked – and tells in great detail in his book – about the economic impact. He analyzed the demographics of garden visitors, and what they spend and are likely to do while touring parks and gardens. The benefits aren’t just to hotels, restaurants and shops, but also to cultural organizations in any given region.

He also cited an independent research study that showed an interest in gardening is the single most common denominator among cultural tourists (visitors to museums, art galleries or historical sites). So they come for the gardens, and also go to see the Darwin Martin House, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Buffalo Museum of Science or another city’s parallel. Or vice versa: They come for those attractions and stay longer because of garden attractions or happenings.

Reasons for the growth in garden tourism are hardly well-understood yet, and the next 25 years will reveal much about how we interact with nature and elements of nature or the simulated natural world that we call gardens. Studies by Benfield and others consider the impacts of the broad changes to a digital world, the way we communicate and learn, and how we experience the world.

Factors that may motivate garden tourism include less access to nature in one’s own backyard (more people living in urban settings), less time spent in woods and fields, and less knowledge of agriculture. At the conference many scholars, businessmen and government representatives referred to many benefits beyond money. Alexander Reford, chairman of the Canadian Garden Tourism Conference, spoke of the interest in environmentally sustainable experiences and “equally important intangible benefits that nature brings to the soul.” How heartwarming, to hear an analysis of a trend that repeatedly referred to spiritual, emotional or psychological benefits – but most gardeners could tell us about that any time.

Because of the garden tourism trend, the Canadian Tourism Council created a Garden Tourism Awards program, for international and Canadian achievements in the field. Among the 2013 international award winners this week were recipients from England, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the U.S. and Australia.Also selected by this council were the Top 10 North American Gardens worth traveling for: the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Butchart Gardens (Victoria, British Columbia), Chanticleer (Wayne, Pa.), Filoli Gardens (Woodside, Calif.), Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Richmond, Va.), Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis), Montreal Botanical Garden, Portland Japanese Garden, Springs Preserve (Las Vegas) and Vallarta Botanical Gardens (Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.)

We know there are many more gardens, festival and tours to enjoy, as garden tourism thrives and grows. Let’s visit their gardens as they visit ours. In doing so we can find joy, inspiration, and it’s very good business.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.