Landguard Fort © David Gill
There are several tourism strategies available for Suffolk. The one for East Suffolk (2017–22) notes the importance of heritage for attracting tourists to the area. One of the aims is to develop the cultural and heritage offer of East Suffolk? Museums are seen as separate from heritage.
East Suffolk attracts (2015) 10.2 million day trips, 2.7 million staying nights. The total value of tourism to the region (2015) was £590 million.
The last blog post that I wrote generated various comments on Twitter about the experiential aspects of cultural tourism and exactly what activities and activities constitute an itinerary that can be labelled as cultural tourism. I was therefore prompted to look at this again after reading the article published by the Guardian on 4 September about the opening of the Borders railway in Scotland which runs from Edinburgh down the old Waverley line route to Tweedbank, just outside Melrose. The Waverley line was closed in 1969 as part of the Beeching cuts and is reopening this weekend. As part of the inaugural service provision it will have scheduled steam train excursions as part of the scenic railways initiative which form part of the new Scotrail franchise holder Abellio’s contribution to sustainable tourism via rail development in Scotland.
New train a comin’ … the new Borders Railway follows the old Waverley Line, running from Edinburgh to the new station of Tweedbank. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
Train travel is experienced in a number of different ways: most often thought of as commuter transport, rail, of course, has a long association with tourism, and opened up holiday destinations to the masses around the coast of Britain. In a competitive travel market, investment made by train companies to spread passenger loads and increase off-peak usage mean that trains are once again becoming increasingly popular as a leisure travel experience. Behavioural aspects of rail travel is interesting to explore: people focus on reading a book, talking to other people, or staring (as I do) out of the window at the changing landscape chugging past. A niche sector of these passengers are using the train travel itself as a cultural tourism experience in its own right, experiencing the landscape and the visual opportunities afforded by looking out of the carriage window but combining it in a more organised way with an engagement with destinations along the route within a defined geographic (and cultural) area.The reopening of the Borders railway explicitly articulates the opportunities for this latter form of cultural tourism, and the Guardian article exemplifies the approach by describing the various views and historical and cultural attractions that are nearby the railway. What is painted is a very compelling cultural picture for an experience that is focused on a linear transport route. Along the way, this incorporates the National Mining Museum, Abbotsford (the home of Walter Scott) and Rosslyn Chapel.
It also mentions opportunities for sampling Borders hospitality en route and and being able to buy locally sourced and produced crafts and foods, so takes into account the link between shopping and cultural tourism and the higher value of goods and services which are focused on and produced by a local economy, and which cultural tourists tend to seek out.
So, this a particular form of cultural tourism. It comprises a certain degree of sheltering from the actual human environment of the Borders but it does give tourist the opportunity to engage with the spirit of the place as presented by a “passing through” through of a complex geography of history and culture, and enables a toe in the water of what the regional culture might offer the tourist if he or she alights and lingers for a longer period and explores in greater depth.
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.
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.