Tourism - and especially heritage tourism - are important tools for economic development, Margaret Hoogstra, regional coordinator for the Texas Forts Trail, told members of the Early Chamber of Commerce at their quarterly luncheon Thursday.

“I’m here as a resource,” Hoogstra said. “I want you to have a bigger piece of the tourism pie, a bigger piece of this economic impact.”

She said rural Texas is the No. 2 leisure destination in the state’s tourism industry.

“People in the metropolitan areas are looking for what have in West Texas,” Hoogstra said. “And heritage travelers are different than other travelers. They stay longer, spend larger and if they have a positive experience they will come back and bring people with them.”

Hoogstra cited findings from a 2006 report on the economic impact of travel prepared for the Texas Tourism Office of the Governor that show heritage travelers spend $502 a day, compared to $336 a day for others. Texas ranks second in the nation, behind California, in the number of heritage travelers each year. Heritage tourists are also more likely to seek out local lodging and restaurants, as opposed to staying with family or friends.

In Brown County, 690 jobs exist because of tourism, and in 2006 total tourist spending by $44,061,000, the report stated. That was up 6.7 percent from 2005. Tourist spending in the county grew 69.7 percent between 1993 and 2006.

“If we didn’t have these tourists coming in, each household would be having to pay $860 a year in additional taxes,” Hoogstra said.

The Texas Forts Trail is a 650-mile circular route through central and west Texas that passes through 29 counties, ranging from Eldorado, Mason, Stephenville, Mineral Wells, Jacksboro, Haskell, Sweetwater and San Angelo. The route runs into Early and Brownwood from the north along U.S. Highway 67-377, and goes south on FM 45 through Richland Springs and Brady.

“It includes eight frontier forts and a Spanish presidio,” Hoogstra said. Two of them are privately owned, while the others are owned by city or county governments or state entities. But all are open to the public.

Hoogstra said since Early is among the youngest cities in the state and the region, its opportunities for heritage tourism may be limited. But Early businesses can capitalize on the trend by partnering with neighboring communities. She commended chamber leaders for doing so already.

“I compliment you on what Brown County is already doing along these lines,” Hoogstra said. “I challenge you to not overlook it as a component of your economic development program.”

Information about the trail is available on the Web at www.TexasFortsTrail.com.