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ASU tourism, recreation students experience agritourism during Rim Country trip

Visits to inns, trails, farm, state park give insights into challenges of industry

A group of students from ASU's Tourism Student Association listen to two people talk outside of a blue house with white trim.

Members of ASU's Tourism Student Association listen as Strawberry Inn owners Carson and Amber Eilers talk about agritourism during the students' recent visit to Arizona's Mogollon Rim Country. Photo courtesy Herman Lee

October 07, 2022

Travelers seeking added adventure and focus to their excursions are engaging more and more in topic-based trips, with -tourism used as a suffix.

Ecotourism, for example, emphasizes firsthand assessment of environmental concerns such as melting polar ice or shrinking rain forests. A group of ASU students interested in tourism and recreation management careers recently took a weekend trip based on agritourism, which centers on offerings of agricultural products and the challenges faced by growers and others involved in agribusiness, as well as nontraditional lodging.

Members of the ASU Tourism Student Association  joined those from the Sports, Parks and Recreation Club in a recent visit to the Mogollon Rim Country towns of Strawberry and Pine in Arizona’s Gila County. They explored small inns, a trailhead, a farm and a state park to become more familiar with nontraditional hospitality entrepreneurship, culinary offerings and park systems' roles within this small but growing tourism area. 

The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University cited 2017 Census of Agriculture figures showing that 28,575 U.S. farms offered agritourism and recreational services totaling $949 million in sales that year.

The ASU students’ first stop was the Strawberry Inn, where owners Carson and Amber Eilers gave an in-depth tour, which included how they took a run-down, unoccupied motel and turned it into a charming, Instagram-able inn. The inn features self-operating units that do not require traditional check-ins, something that proved ideal during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has expanded to include a nearby property with a tiny house and Airstream travel trailers where guests may stay.

The group learned about how the owners initially struggled as the small community grappled to embrace change. Through their outreach and community collaboration, especially through the 2021 Backbone Fire, they carved out solid community partnerships and are now a staple of Strawberry. 

While Sports, Parks and Recreation Club members enjoyed a walk-and-talk with "Ranger Angie" at Fossil Creek Trailhead, Tourism Student Association members continued on to the beautiful Pine Creek Canyon Lavender Farm in neighboring Pine. Owners Terry Gorton and Rick Vesci dreamed up the next chapter of their lives by developing an agritourism business growing the only crop the plentiful elk in the area would leave alone – lavender.

Gorton gave a culinary demonstration and helped students understand that entrepreneurship must make sense with equal amounts of passion and profitability. She also shared that she had no idea that the business would take off as it has, and the power of what they call their “purple magnets” has led to multiple growth opportunities. Gorton said the community participates in the harvesting process, and the farm's location right along State Routes 87 and 260 makes it hard to miss. 

Group of students gathered on a rick formation, posing for a photo with a park ranger.

Tourism Student Association members pause during a recent hike under the natural travertine bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park in Arizona's Mogollon Rim Country. Photo courtesy Jeneca Kostad

The students then enjoyed a delicious wood-fired pizza lunch thanks to chef Mike Dahling and his team at Old County Inn.

The group's last stop was Tonto Natural Bridge State Park along the same highway south of Pine. "Ranger Mikah" welcomed students and discussed his multi-faceted role at the park, what flora and fauna to look for and the lesser-known benefits of being a state park ranger.

The grand finale of the day was a hike down to the natural bridge, forged in travertine by water, drop by drop, over millions of years. Some groups ended up hiking the entire Natural Bridge Trail.

“It was an experience to remember for the students, learning so much about tourism in small towns and how the parks systems fit into the mix,” said TSA Secretary Jordyn Hoff.

Tourism Student Association President Jeneca Kostad said the trip enabled her to better connect with fellow members. Kostad said that, as an out-of-state student, the day gave her the chance to see more of Arizona.

“It gave me the opportunity to explore and visit parts of Arizona and learn about the variations of tourism throughout (the state) that I might not have thought to visit on my own,” Kostad said.

Tourism Student Association member Kincso Marton, an exchange student from King’s College in London, said she is grateful to the group’s faculty advisor, lecturer Claire McWilliams of the ASU School of Community Resources and Development, and its leadership “for helping me explore Arizona on my year abroad from the U.K. and meet incredible business people along the way.”

Marton said she is looking forward to more Tourism Student Association events.

“I had an amazing day packed with adventures,” she said.

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