The time is ripe for a Tour the Catskills movement

Photo of Delaware County street signs by Mark Zilberman. Posted to the Watershed Post's Flickr group.

When is a tourist not a tourist?

Answer: When the only touring they're doing is from their hotel room to the spa to the gift shop in the lobby.

The tourism industry would say that people who travel on vacations are tourists, but if they have no interest in making a tour of the place they're visiting, shouldn’t we call them something else? Actual tourists tour. The concept is so basic it that we seldom give it a thought. But we should.

Real tourists take satisfaction in deliberate, but not always scripted, travel through places. They explore social, cultural and physical environments; they discover things. The pace might be fast and exhilarating, or relaxing and slow. Either way, tourists like learning about new places, or scratching below the surface of places they want to know more about.

But not all vacationers are tourists. Sometimes all we want or need is a motel room and a beach. Or it might be a snow-covered cabin complete with fireplace, nestled somewhere near a ski lift. Sometimes we want to feel pampered by staff always eager to serve our needs. We hand the keys to the car to a valet on arrival, and don’t think of it again until the bellhop fills the trunk at check out. We show up knowing what to expect, prepared to let others simplify our choices. Letting go is part of the appeal.

Most vacations fit into one of two categories. We either check out an area, exploring and learning as we go along, or we check into a place, playing and relaxing while we mostly stay put. The two types attract different kinds of vacationers, and they can have very different economic benefits to their surrounding regions.

Self-contained resorts for vacationers have become a bigger thing since the days when Disneyland was about the only one ever advertised on TV. Today, we're bombarded with ads for countless adult and family playlands, each carved out of – and virtually sealed off from – the regions where they are located.

Do people enjoy these types or resorts? Yes, many do.

Do they help the local economy? That question is harder to answer, and depends in part on how each word of that sentence is defined.

Clearly, money is made at those types of resorts, when they succeed. But where it gets routed, and with whom it ultimately gets spent, is a murkier matter. We know from recent years that the wealth of a nation can increase at the same time that a typical family's finances are deteriorating. Statistics can be devilishly deceptive.

Some decades back, casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City. Jobs were clearly created. They always are when resorts open, since people are needed to staff them. In Atlantic City, many of those casino jobs still exist today. But after about five years of casino operations, the job gains there were more than offset by a higher number of job losses that hit Atlantic City outside the narrow boundaries of the casino district. Beware of unintended consequences.

Resorts played a major role in the Catskills in the past. No doubt they’ll play a role in our future also. But a lot has changed over the last hundred years or so. The Catskills were America’s first vacationland, but now we compete with the world. There are many exotic resorts for vacationers to chose from, many with better climates than our own.

When I think of vacationing in the Catskills today, I think of a different trend. Back in my father’s youth, people liked going for Sunday drives. There’s a different buzzword for it now: “Road Trip.” But it's the same relaxed, rambling kind of travel. And as flying becomes increasingly onerous, degrading and expensive, it's looking better all the time.

The Catskills are conveniently located a few hours from the most densely populated part of our nation. Our mountains can't be reduced to a single fixed-point destination, any more than the Amish Country can be found at one specific farm. In short, the Catskills are ripe for touring.

I toured Ireland a number of years back, and it was the best vacation I ever had. Ireland is small; you can crisscross it in hours. But there was more to experience there than I could absorb in a dozen trips.

What Ireland has that the Catskills doesn't is a user-friendly culture of touring, and good marketing to lure vacationers into it. In Ireland, I had some sense of what was waiting there for me to find: an inadequate sense, but compelling enough to launch me on a journey of discovery. On the other hand, I was virtually clueless how much the Catskills had to offer before I moved here.

After ten years as a resident, I’m just starting to get a grasp on it. Promotional material for touring Ireland was easy to locate, even in California where I lived at the time. It’s much harder for me to find the same for the Catskills, though I live in Phoenicia today. We need history trail pamphlets and human guides. We need gallery maps and advance-booked concert tours of local music. Week-long rugged outdoor adventures, restful rustic bed-and-breakfast adventures, former utopian communities and rich Indian lore; all are ripe for promoting to people that like to spend their vacations wandering.

We need a website the entire community can help build, like a Catskills Wikipedia sharing the special facets that make our region unique. We could use more genuine tourists in the Catskills, and they could use help finding us. It’s time for a Tour the Catskills Movement.

One thing about true tourists: They know how to spread the wealth.

Tom Rinaldo writes the Dispatches from Shandaken column for the Watershed Post's Shandaken page. Email Tom at

Update, Feb. 9, 2012: The original image we had used to illustrate this story was a 1920s-era brochure from the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. We thought the image was in the public domain. The company selling the brochure contacted us to request that we take the image down. We have no intention of infringing on the rights of any copyright holders, and we apologize for posting the image.