What do we mean by “cultural tourism”?

I was talking to James Hazell earlier this morning on the BBC Radio Suffolk Breakfast Show about the growth of cultural tourism in Suffolk.  This was following up on the recent launch of the “Look Sideways – East” collaboration to promote this aspect of tourism and leisure focused in Norfolk & Suffolk.  Tourism plays a key part in the growth economy as an industrial / economic sector, and from data published by VisitEngland as part of the annual national survey of visits to visitor attractions, the East of England outperformed other regions of the UK in terms of visitor admission trends in 2014, with a 10% increase in visits.  On a global basis, according to World Tourism Organisation figures published in 2014,  cultural tourism accounts 37% of the world tourism market, and is projected to increase by 17% year on year.

Snape Maltings in Winter – from EADT Article on Cultural Tourism http://www.eadt.co.uk/news/new_bid_to_attract_cultural_tourism_to_region_backed_by_suffolk_and_norfolk_1_3907314

But what do we mean by ‘cultural tourism’? There are plenty of textbooks and articles which use the term, and alongside the word ‘heritage’ it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways according to activities being described, motivations being analysed, or resources being developed and visited.  From my own perspective, it is fundamentally about the relationships which are formed between a visitor as a person, as opposed to a consumer, and a place.  It encompasses time depth, emotional response, and a complex set of layers of interaction between a person and their physical (built and natural) environment as well as other people (locals) in that place.  It would not be overstating it to suggest that cultural tourism is really about the opportunity to ‘bond‘ with a location and it’s identity – to feel it and for it to have a lasting effect in the memory as a ‘connection’.  There are many triggers which may generate this highly personal response to a tourism activity, from customer service, to interpretation, engaging activities, artistic practices, quality of environment, sense of place, and so on.  Everyone is different, so the ‘sweet spot’ to produce the ultimate cultural tourism experience is probably an impossible challenge, but it is encouraging to see an approach such as the Look Sideways campaign, which is taking the personalised approach of ‘curated experiences‘ which highlight personalised connection opportunities – with people, histories, sights, sounds and locations.

I have the advantage of being a member of the ICOMOS-UK Cultural Tourism Committee which works to understand and promote best practice in cultural tourism, as part of a wider global network which has a Charter for managing tourism at places with cultural heritage significance – but it remains a challenge to properly understand the concept and from an operational point of view to manage in a low key way something as fluid as the unique cultural identity of a place so that it remains dynamic and attractive as a ‘must-immerse’ cultural experience.

Author: Ian Baxter

Heritage management / historic preservation academic at Heriot-Watt University; Vice-Chair of the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS); Trustee of The Heritage Alliance. Obsessed by administrative histories of heritage organisations, heritage signs, and the design of site guidebooks.

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