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Authenticity in Cultural Heritage Tourism

By Cheryl Hargrove

This article is reprinted in excerpt from the Forum Journal, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Fall 2003, vol. 18 N.1

What a difference a decade makes. Think of all the events that have shaped our lives over the past 10 years. Some are landmark events and some are less known, but all had a profound impact on what we value, what we desire, and what we know as truth. One event in particular has shaped my direction in the last decade-the National Trust Heritage Tourism Initiative. It's hard to believe that the definition of "cultural heritage tourism" has only been around in this country formally, since the mid-1990s. To understand how the heritage tourism segment has grown, understand some of its current challenges, and identify some of its opportunities, I talked with several industry professionals who were interviewed several years ago for the Forum Journal Summer 1999 issue on heritage tourism. I found one key theme connecting current research and trends in cultural heritage tourism-the importance of authenticity.

State of U.S. Cultural Heritage Tourism
A 2003 Travel Industry Association of America (TIA)/Smithsonian magazine study reports that 81 percent of all Americans taking a trip last year included a visit to a cultural heritage site or event. Further, the updated TIA Profile of Cultural Historic Travelers underscores the importance of that industry segment to our nation's overall travel industry. While many cultural heritage tourism leaders talk about the industry segment positively - and applaud the distance we've journeyed in the past decade-the consensus is also that we have a lot of work still to do to ensure future sustainable growth. Like all industries, cultural heritage tourism is constantly evolving. One of our unique challenges is to manage the external demands that place pressure on fragile assets.

More products, more experiences, more sophisticated travelers, and more competition top the list of current major influences on the industry cited by US cultural heritage tourism professionals. Three trends emerged when talking with cultural heritage tourism leaders.

Trend 1: Experience is now more important than destination. People are seeking experiences and getaways that combine a number of activities. Further, travelers desire drive-to destinations with year-round experiences. These combine to make visiting cultural heritage sites and events attractive activities for all ages. Managers must appropriately develop sites to accommodate various audiences.

Trend 2: Sites serve as educators for history. Cultural heritage sites are perceived as experts and are trusted to impart a credible presentation of history. Since September 11, certainly, interest in America's cultural heritage has grown. American consumers-the domestic market-are seeking new ways to connect with their roots and becomeeducated. The international market seeks out authentic American experiences to learn about our country. Both markets look to site managers and curators to provide an education that is missing from the classroom or long since forgotten. This means learning experiences must be developed for all ages.

Trend 3: Increased competition requires cultural heritage sites and events to provide high quality, authentic experiences. An abundance of new cultural heritage sites and activities, along with manufactured and other non-industry related activities, creates a host of options for travelers. The internet brings a whole new world to cultural heritage tourism. Strategic marketing and consistent experiences are necessary to maintain market share. The new product is thematic, easily purchased, and easily experienced. Above all, the messages must be based on fact.

Recognize Authenticity
Webster's dictionary defines authenticity as "being actually and precisely what is claimed." For professional engaged in historic sit management and cultural heritage tourism, the responsibility lies in preservation, maintenance, interpretation, and marketing of distinctive experiences founded on documented history.

A 2002 Heritage Tourism Study produced for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedre & The Beaches by the University of Florida's Center for Tourism Research & Development includes some significant information on how visitors define and value authenticity. In exit polls, visitors were asked about the importance of heritage experiences. More than 95 percent of the visitors said that it was "somewhat" to "very important" to experience authentic elements on their trip; 38.9 percent of visitors polled ranked "experiencing authentic elements" as very important. To "experience the region's historic character" ranked highest among the respondents (44 percent). Historic architecture, museums, and historic objects rated very high in authenticity (4.1 mean score out of possible 5), while souvenirs ranked very low (3).

When authenticity is compromised, cultural heritage tourism loses credibility. Moreover, when authenticity is compromised cultural heritage tourism loses what differentiates it from sanitized theme park adventures and recreate (rather than real) attractions. In some respects, the popularity of cultural heritage tourism has led imposters to our customer's door. It is our responsibility to ensure that visitors continue to understand and value authentic sites and experiences. Only by ensuring that authenticity is not compromised can our industry earn the trust and confidence of current and future visitors.

Preserve and Develop the Authentic Product
Anne Tyler's Novel The Accidental Tourist lauded the merits of traveling without ever leaving the armchair. Think of all the books-from contemporary best-sellers to the classics-that bring a place to life through words and stories. Yet, through words and stories. Yet as aptly conveyed in America's Challenge, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's 2001 report, "we in the genuine article-the truly memorable experience that only the actual place can provide." For preservationists, the talk of saving and conserving our heritage must extend past the built environment to include the landscapes, the culture, and the traditions of the native peoples.

When focusing on authenticity, cultural heritage tourism managers must be mindful of the total experience-not just single sites or events. According to a Geotourism Study (Phase I) conducted by the TIA and National Geographic Traveler in 2002, 61 percent of American travelers who took at least one trip the past three years said "my experience is better when my destination preserves its natural, historic, and cultural sites and attraction;" 52 percent of this same group is "very/extremely likely to take trips to places that have authentic historic or archaeological buildings and sites;" and 49 percent are "very/extremely likely to take trips to places where I can experience people, lifestyles and cultures very different from my own."

And yet, historic site and cultural heritage tourism managers cannot preserve in a vacuum. As Mitch Bowman, executive director of Virginia's Civil War Trails, recognizes, the tourism industry expects the infrastructure as well-adequate parking, signage, handicap accessibility, consistent (and appropriate) hours of operation, maintenance, and trained staff-to accommodate visitors.

While debate looms about how to judge authenticity, we must be mindful that the expectation of the customer is that sites will provide truth and integrity in regard to preservation and presentation. We must not be mired by political boundaries or mandates when establishing an authentic experience; we must serve the customer with integrity.

Market Authenticity
Fundamentally, the product creates the market. If we provide a consistent, quality "authentic" experience every day-whether it is accommodations at a historic hotel, a local dish served up at a neighborhood diner, craft demonstrations at a gallery, or an interpreted tour program at a house museum-the positive word of mouth generated from existing customer becomes the most powerful marketing tool available.

Find the Appropriate Balance
As cultural heritage tourism gains popularity, it also attracts the attention of elected officials and business leaders. While this notice is critical to the growth of this industry segment, the real focus must be on balancing the needs of three assets: the resource, the resident, and the visitor. All must benefit from cultural heritage tourism development for sustainable success.

If the resource is not protected then the very opportunity to attract visitors with authentic experiences vanishes. For cultural heritage tourism, the authentic resource is defined by an entire "sense of place"-inclusive of the gateway, the built environment, the landscape, the cuisine and cultural traditions, and the souvenirs to purchase. If the resident is not considered in the development, marketing, and management of the destination, then the benefits are often lost. Community tourism has evolved as a new industry segment to ensure that "community" values are respected, that there are local economic and social benefits, and that messages marketed to attract visitors authentically represent the stories of peoples past and present. Finally, visitors will only continue to be lured to cultural heritage destinations if they find value in the authentic experience-either through education or a nostalgic experience that has meaning and meets expectations.

According to Mitch Bowman, when you have authenticity everything else falls into place. Interpretation is easier and more powerful. Marketing is much more effective because people value "the real thing"-and the real thing doesn't have meaning. Maintenance is ensured because the community finds it worthwhile and valuable to sustain and nurture is singular, irreplaceable cultural assets.

Cheryl Hargrove is president of The HTC Group. She was the National Trust's first heritage tourism director, and has been involved in cultural heritage tourism for the past decade.

2003 - Volume 34, Issue 4

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