Why interpretation is part of sustainable cultural tourism

Cultural tourism is a big international industry that is made up of many small, often tiny, micro-businesses.  I find that rather appealing. I like the fact that my work in heritage interpretation is a cog in the mighty wheel of cultural tourism and, at the same time, involves working with dedicated small businesses, and helping people have a good holiday (even if only a day out).
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Heritage tourism is an important part of cultural tourism. The recently published report from Oxford Economics on ‘The economic impact of the UK heritage heritage sector‘ puts the contribution from human and natural heritage at £9.6 billion.  Hooray.  That contribution is growing rapidly. Hooray. While I am at it, let’s have a third cheer for Oxford Economics for producing this report and for the Heritage Lottery Fund for commissioning the work.  Hooray.
Memorable visits to heritage sites (human and natural) are part of that big-hitting industry of heritage tourism. Those high quality visits depend on skillful interpretation.  Heritage interpretation and heritage tourism are bedfellows and mutually dependant.
As my friend and expert in sustainable tourism, José  María de Juan, of KOAN consulting and the co-founder and co-director of the Spanish Centre for Responsible Tourism wrote in his recent article in the Interpret Europe newsletter, In my working field, where every day I link heritage interpretation, destination planning and responsible tourism, I have experienced how heritage interpretation creates more responsible and sensitive tourists who respect the environment.
I work in a lot of places who want more responsible and sensitive tourists who respect the environment.
 Well planned and integrated interpretation delivers that. It can influence behaviour and encourage responsibility. It is a hugely important tool for that, because it is, by definition, part of and embedded in the leisure experience. Moreover,  interpretation happens at the place (and often the time) where the behaviour, the sensitivity and the responsiblity most matters.
Interpretation can increase understanding and build the connections that underpin sensitivity. Once we have decided what respecting the environment looks like (a bit of a soapbox of mine – but another story) it can help with that too. Along the way interpretation will help people notice things , discover and discuss their significance, meet people and hear their story. It can help make their holiday one that will stay with them.
Good interpretive skills lie at the heart of sustainable tourism – in the small scale, potent and hugely memorable, sometimes life-changing interactions that happen at attractions between local people who want to share their heritage and foreigners who would like to explore it.  Look at this post about a moose safari in Sweden, or this one about a farm attraction in Slovenia for examples of what I mean.
Heritage tourism offers interpreters the chance to make a clear business case, with figures included, for the work we do.
This morning  someone asked me for examples of interpretation at historical and archaeological sites that support heritage tourism. It set me thinking.
What would you have pointed to?  I am sure there are places all over the world where people are having better- than-they-had-hoped-for visits that they will always remember because of inspired , skilled on the spot communicators.  Which have made a difference to you? I would love your stories and suggestions.
In my next blog will set out some of my answers; my list of places where I think interpretation serves tourists particularly well.

4 thoughts on “Why interpretation is part of sustainable cultural tourism

  1. Thanks, Susan. This is great information. Arizona Humanities Council has done research on cultural tourism and published their findings at http://www.azhumanities.org/pdf/cht_study.pdf. Cultural tourists in that state stay longer than golf tourists (the main emphasis in that state) and spend more money with mom and pop stores, restaurants and lodging. Resort and golf tourists spend their money at the resort and it goes to the corporations that own them. Dan Shilling, former Director of Arizona Humanities Council, started a Civic Tourism program that really emphasizes the importance of doing more than advertising. Communities must invest in the experience design and attractions (museums, historic sites, parks, etc.) that create the sense of place, not just advertising (http://www.civictourism.org). Tim Merriman

    1. Thanks for that Tim. I will look it up. I know work in the Republic of Ireland has shown similar results certainly in terms of cultural tourists spending more. I like your point from the Arizona work that the cultural tourism spend goes further into the community. (NOTE for readers like me who had not come across the term, ‘mom and pop’ stores are not places where you can part exchange your parents (sorry kids), they are ‘businesses that are owned and operated in a single location, rather than being part of a national chain’.)

      I have heard a similar but parallel case to the one Dan Schilling made case for the importance of attractions made by accommodation providers: ‘It doesn’t ultimately matter how marvellous my hotel is, people choose to come because of the area and what they can do here.’ Attractions and accommodation are both essential to the successful mix.

      Thanks for sharing this. I think it is really important for us to marshall data like this that highlights the value of interpretation in business terms, internationally. Does anyone out there have similar stuff to put into the melting pot?

  2. Barrie Cooper says:

    Thanks for sharing this Susan. Very useful piece of research.

    1. Hi Barrie, thanks. Hope you can use it. It’s well worth delving into I think.

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