Heritage and cultural tourism

Cultural tourism is a particularly interesting segment of the tourism industry and a key factor for the economy of many European regions and towns. According to the Eurobarometer survey “Europeans and Tourism” (2009), cultural attractiveness is the second motivation for Europeans when deciding on a holiday destination. The first is “value for money”. If European tourists had to reduce their spending during their holidays in 2009, they did it primarily for restaurants and shopping, but rarely for cultural and entertainment activities.

Cultural tourism is understood as visits by persons from outside the host community motivated wholly or to a considerable degree by interest in the cultural, historical, artistic and lifestyle offerings of a region or town (so called “purposeful cultural tourists”). Just “sightseeing” while on a travel does not qualify, however, tourists without strong cultural motives for travelling might occasionally be drawn into a museum or attend a local cultural event. The report “City Tourism & Culture” (WTO-ETC 2005) notes that “culture is the single most important motivation for city trips although relatively few visitors view themselves as ‘cultural tourists’.” Indeed, only about 20% of city tourists rate culture as their prime motivator, but a far greater number of tourists are actually involved in cultural activities while on a city trip

The important role of cultural tourism is particularly clear in the case of large “cultural cities” (e.g. Amsterdam or Barcelona) and renowned smaller historic and arts cities (e.g., Bruges or Salzburg). But also ever more towns with interesting historic and other features seek to develop their potential for such cultural tourism. As the European Institute of Cultural Routes (2006) notes, “interest in tourism has spread rapidly throughout many small and medium European cities, which previously have not considered themselves as tourist destinations”.

It is expected that the competition for visitors between cultural tourism destinations will increase considerably. Newcomers and established destinations will need to be very inventive to stand out among the many competitors. Using stereotypic labels such as “historic town” will not work to become a distinct place in the cultural tourism landscape.

Besides the existing competition among destinations, it will be important to consider not only the possible favourable effects, but also the critical aspects of tourism particularly in smaller places with limited tourism carrying capacity. Below we summarize some favourable and critical aspects of cultural tourism.

Favourable aspects of cultural tourism

The promotion of cultural tourism is motivated by the fact that culture and heritage tourists differ from the statistically average tourist profile in several favourable aspects. Moreover, it is understood that strong societal trends work in favour of cultural tourism. The following are some key trends that drive cultural tourism and possibly have positive economic, social and environmental effects at tourism destinations:

People increasingly look for authenticity and meaningful experiences

In tourism this favours activities that are related to culture, heritage, historic depth, human continuity and spirituality, hence, are clearly distinct from “theme park” tourism. (cf. Lord 1999) The more “industrial” the typical travel package and holiday resort become, the more people will look for meaningful experiences, authentic environments, landscapes, towns and villages with character, cultural specificities, and traditional rituals of social life. There are, of course, some delicate questions implied when talking about authenticity and meaningful experiences in the context of tourism products. (Chhabra et al. 2003; Kim & Jamal 2007; Knudsen & Wade 2010)

Cultural tourists tend to spend more money while on vacation

Surveys on cultural tourists consistently report that on average they have a higher level of educational attainment, higher income, and spend more money on trips than other tourists. The first survey of the ATLAS Cultural Tourism Project (2002) found that the daily expenditure of cultural tourists was over €70, whereas visitors on a touring holiday spent €52, beach tourists €48, and people on a city break €42. (ATLAS 2002) The TOMAS 2008 survey on tourists in Croatia shows that visitors on overnight trips who visited museums and galleries on average spent the most, €55 in coastal and €65 in inland counties. The average daily expenditure of these tourists was €57 per day, of which 7% (€4) was spent directly on culture. (InstitutzaTurizam 2009) Though, it must be noted that cultural tourists on average stay in an area for a shorter period than others like beach tourists.

Heritage tourists are often from an older, well to do age group

Purposeful cultural tourists who want to visit historic towns, monuments, archaeological sites and museums tend to be from older age groups. Hence, the trend towards the “aging society” works in favour of cultural tourism offerings. Older age groups are not only growing in proportion, on average they also have the highest spending power and are ever more willing to spend rather than to save their money. For example, in a survey in 2002 of German seniors between 50 and 79 years old, almost 50% agreed with the statement “I rather prefer to live a good life than saving money all of the time”. Ten years before, only 25% could identify with this phrase. (GfK 2002) The seniors also have more time available for travel, which they may choose to make off-season trips. They can also be expected to be increasingly savvy, demanding and critical.

Quality demands of cultural tourists

It is worth noting that culture and heritage tourists tend to be more quality conscious regarding the natural and urban environment they visit, the available accommodation, gastronomy, etc. For example, they are not necessarily attracted to large standardized hotels and may look for character, style or charm in their accommodation. (European Commission 2003) An increasing level of concern about the environment among culture and heritage tourists means that tourism service providers will be expected to contribute to the sustainability of the natural environment and local communities.

Diversification of tourism offer

For many tourism destinations the development of heritage sites and other cultural offerings allow for a diversification of their tourism portfolio. Some countries’ tourism markets have been pigeonholed for a long period into “sun and sea” mass tourism, but increasingly try to diversify into or at least add culture-based tourism offerings for enjoying and learning more about the destination. (Ashworth 2004) The Croatian coast and parts of North Africa, especially Tunisia, are examples for such attempts to benefit from heritage assets and other place-specific culture (gastronomy, events, handcraft, etc.).

Critical aspects of cultural tourism

Rapid consumption of heritage places

Even major heritage-rich destinations (e.g., Bath or Venice) rarely have an average length of stay of tourists of more than two days. The situation of small heritage towns is even worse as most of them will primarily receive daytrip visitors, whose stay is better measured in hours; e.g., a 4–6 hour stay of holiday excursionists in Valetta or an average of 2.5 hours in Delft. (cf. Ashworth 2004 and 2009)

Return visits are unlikely

A further major issue is that heritage attractions tend not to generate return visits. As Gregory Ashworth writes, “much heritage tourism could be labelled Michelin/Baedeker collecting. Tourists have pre-marked sites and artefacts that must be visited if the place is to be authentically experienced. Once ‘collected’ a repeat is superfluous and the collection must be expanded elsewhere. Ironically, the more unique the heritage experience, the less likely it is to be repeated.” (Ashworth 2004, 5)

Mummification of heritage towns

A summary of the UNESCO Partnerships for World Heritage Cities symposium (2002) warns that in many cities the historical areas have become “well-maintained ghettos”, which is “often an expression of the adverse effects of heritage policies that invest in historical centres in ways, which end up depriving them of their primary functions”. They also warn that this “can result in frozen, mummified historical centres cut off from the city’s modern soul and increasingly irrelevant to all but sightseers and tourists”. (Robert et al. 2003, 86 and 93)

Impact of tourism development on local retail, workshops and residential spaces

There also often occurs a gradual displacement of economic functions at tourist place. For example, the higher rents that can be earned from the tourist trade force out of historic centres traditional retailers and small workshops. The effect is that the residents can no longer find the assortment of goods or particular services they are looking for. (Russo 2002) Furthermore, the development “can bring gentrification and lead to city centres inhabited only by the rich classes and occupied by tourists and private businesses” (Pascual 2004, 3).

Degradation of smaller heritage places

Easily accessible heritage sites and small historic towns often attract large numbers of visitors (most often day-trip visitors) with strong negative effects. The basic conflict in promoting cultural tourism has become evident: The unique character of a living historic environment, which is marketed to potential visitors, should be preserved. Yet, tourism development brings crowds of visitors, tourist shops that offer cheap imported products, a theatrical illumination of monuments is installed, “folkloric” entertainment is offered, etc. The damage caused by mass tourism on heritage sites is felt at many places in Europe and worldwide.

Sustainable tourism

The typical consumption patterns and negative effects of heritage tourism make a proactive tourism management by regional and local authorities and site managers a necessity. If they allow heritage sites, public spaces and other local resources to be degraded and damaged by excessive tourism, the resources will be lost for everybody – the local people as well as the visitors. The tourist area life-cycle certainly has reached the critical stage if heritage places become degraded and the residents face a situation where they must compete with tourists for space, local services and opportunities to enjoy their life. In short, the heritage site and the local community should be the most important stakeholders in cultural tourism development, and local authorities must understand that protecting the site and the quality of life of the local people are essential for sustaining tourism in the longer term.

The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (WTO, 2004) defines sustainable tourism as follows: “Sustainable tourism development meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems.”

Following WTO’s Global Code of Ethics for Tourism” (1999) and ICOMOS’ International Cultural Tourism Charter (ICOMOS 1999), ever more declarations and similar documents have been issued (e.g. by Europa Nostra), that indicate an increasing unease regarding the commercialization of cultural heritage for tourism purposes. Also ever more studies and advice have been provided on how to ensure sustainable tourism.

While tourism is often seen to threaten heritage sites by too high usage levels, it is also often important for the local community. As the different purposes of heritage sites (preserve) and tourism organizations (exploit) will often be in conflict, mutual understanding, partnerships and cooperation for sustainability will probably be the best way for preparing the ground for acceptable trade-offs and sustainable solutions.

Results of the CreativeCH workshop “Cultural Tourism”

The topic has been addressed by the CreativeCH workshop held at the Museu de la Ciència i de la Tècnica de Catalunya (Terrassa, Spain) on the 10th of May 2013, with a focus on industrial heritage tourism.
Workshop highlights