Cultural and Heritage Tourism, and Why It Matters
Cultural and heritage tourism refers to tourism where arts, culture and heritage form a key attraction for visitors, and the focus of their activities.
Some argue that all tourism is cultural heritage tourism, since all tourism involves people (culture) in a setting with (natural and/or cultural) heritage. Because tourism marketing depends on market segmentation,
it is helpful to define cultural heritage tourism more specifically.
As a result of that need for focus, over the past few decades cultural and heritage tourism has been defined quite narrowly as a set of tourism products linked to major arts events and heritage institutions, including
museums, art galleries and festivals. In long-established European and Asian destinations, this has been effective because of the existence of global icons such as Rome’s Coliseum, London’s British Museum, Paris’
Louvre or China’s Terracotta Army.
Outside of these traditional destinations, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada have begun to recognize the value of their own “folk” cultures. Canadian cowboys, Australian outback prospectors and Maori
warriors are not classic stereotypes of culture, but they do have distinctive ways of life that can be fascinating for visitors. Thus the broader definition of cultural and heritage tourism, which includes both “formal” and “folk” cultures, is the definition of cultural heritage and tourism taken in this guide.
Important recent work by the United Nations, Australia, and Quebec has deemed mainstream institutions as purveyors of “tangible” culture, pointing out that there is a whole world of “intangible culture” also attracting visitors. Intangible culture refers to people, their interactions and the environments in which they conduct their lives. If tangible culture is about viewing a painting at a gallery, then intangible culture is about having a conversation with the artist or watching them at work. The approach taken in this guide embraces both the tangible and intangible aspects.
A few years ago, the United Nations called cultural tourism the fastest-growing segment of the industry. The Canadian government responded by creating plans4 for this sector’s development.
Why is cultural and heritage tourism so popular right now? The answers lie in the demand for this type of tourism, and in the benefits these markets can provide. Studies show visitors who are interested in cultural and heritage tourism tend to have money and are more willing to spend it. This supports a trend toward the less-vigorous, experiential kinds of activities. Additionally, cultural heritage tourism creates benefits for operators and host communities, beyond
simple profits, that improve quality of life for all.
Canadian federal, provincial and territorial agencies responsible for tourism conducted the Tourism Activities and Motivations Survey (TAMS) in 2007 that reveal trends in both the composition of the market and the preferences of consumers. These trends directly support the argument for more, and better, cultural and heritage tourism development.
TAMS, conducted with Canadian and US markets, found that after shopping and dining, cultural heritage activities have the highest participation rates of all tourism activities for visitors from both countries. Visiting heritage sites and museums consistently emerges as activities in which most participate. Both American and Canadian travellers also listed informal “strolling around a city to observe its buildings and architecture” as one of the most popular activities.
So why are cultural heritage activities so popular? We have all heard about how the post-World War II “Baby Boomers” are entering their golden years. This aging bulge in the demographic profile of nations around the world has been the trend-setter in marketing for decades. When this generation was growing up in the 1960s, the tourism industry responded to these younger travelers with more eco- and adventure products, including outdoor activities like ocean kayaking, downhill skiing and hiking.
Now that Baby Boomers are entering their senior years, their tourism interests have shifted from active outdoorsy products to less vigorous activities that involve more thinking, learning, feeling and understanding. Instead of rustic camping by a picnic table, the Boomer of today wants a comfortable bed and linens on the table. The trend away from high-exertion also includes a move towards personal growth – whether learning about a new place or a different way of
life, volunteering to help combat a social problem, or picking up a new skill.
This demographic trend means a growing demand for cultural and heritage tourism products. This does not mean cultural heritage tourism will replace other tourism activities – there will always be visitors seeking eco- and adventure-tourism products; however, the trend does indicate that if Alberta tourism operators wish to keep their share of the tourism pie, these changes in the composition of our markets are worth considering in order to extend or enhance
a visitor’s explore & experience in Alberta.
The other trend affecting cultural and heritage tourism is a shift in Canadian culture. Forty years ago, at the dawn of our tourism industry, many North American families went on annual camping trips in the family station wagon. Canada’s culture was much less diverse, and growing up most Canadians shared similar experiences such as camping, fishing, hunting, hiking and skiing. Many of today’s adult Canadians have not grown up in this outdoor culture. They may be recent immigrants or children of immigrants with limited outdoor experience. Many other Canadians have grown up in urban areas, without significant exposure to outdoor activities.
For these new Canadians and city-raised urbanites, rigorous outdoor activities may have limited attraction. This
opens the door for cultural and heritage tourism, which provides activities more in line with their expectations: the chance to taste regional cuisines, sample artistic expressions and experience the lifestyles of other cultures.
Economic Trends Tourism is a highly dynamic sector. The global tourism industry adapts and reshapes in response to economic, social, political and environmental forces. Challenges such as stricter border controls, combined with a severe global economic downturn, have impacted revenues and forced a re-think about markets and the changing demand for
tourism products. As a whole, the tourism industry has had to re-evaluate the way it operates. Cultural and heritage tourism is one way to enhance a tourism product offering in today’s changing market.
Research demonstrates how cultural and heritage tourism consumers tend to stay longer, spend more, and are more interested in taking part in extra activities than average tourists.
A 2009 study conducted for the US National Trust for Historic Preservation found that nearly 80% of all leisure travelers take part in a cultural heritage activity. It also revealed that cultural heritage tourists spend an average of $994 per trip, compared to $611 for the “general” traveler – almost 50% more. Cultural heritage travelers also travel more often than generalists, taking about five trips per year compared to four by general travelers.
The study suggests there are 36 million “dedicated” Americans expecting to take cultural and heritage tourism trips every year. The bottom line for operators is a large pool of keen potential customers willing to pay for high-quality, authentic experiences.
Creating a Unique Selling Proposition
When you are struggling to make your message heard in the crowded marketplace, cultural heritage is a tool that lets you offer clients something special, something marketers call a unique selling proposition. This ability to separate your product from the herd is especially important in tough economic times,
when profit margins are slimmest, because it allows you to compete on the strength of your product, rather than having to get into a “race for the bottom” by price-cutting. While the natural beauty of Alberta has always been the primary selling point for Alberta, we need to work towards both the natural and cultural heritage attractions of the province.
At the same time, consumer advertising developed by Travel Alberta has increasingly featured people enjoying a variety of different activities. The glorious natural geography of Alberta still figures in the equation of attracting visitors, but it is now enhanced by the exciting cultural heritage assets that make life in Alberta unique.