A Search for Authenticity: Why Cultural Heritage Tourism is on the Rise

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Annapolis MD Main Street
Annapolis, MD dates to the American Colonial era
Image: highlimits Studio, Wikimedia Commons

We live in an era of mass culture. Drive along a business route or interstate highway anywhere in America, and you’ll find the roads lined with the same franchised businesses. The food, hotels, auto services, and stores are identical from town to town. Don’t misunderstand me — franchises have a place in our culture. They offer product consistency, and travelers’ expectations are met. We know what we will get when we eat at McDonalds, sleep in a Holiday Inn, and awaken to Starbucks coffee.

But the sameness of those experiences — regardless of geographic location — leaves many of us craving something different, something more authentic. We long for unique and engaging experiences. We want to eat local food and listen to local music. We want more than sameness when we travel — we want emotional connection and insights.

A longing for emotional connection is why nostalgia is currently such big business. Nostalgia triggers memories and engages our imagination. Everywhere you turn, someone is discussing nostalgia as if it’s a recent breakthrough. It’s been discussed ad nauseum in scientific journals, books, and marketing materials.

Heritage Tourism offers travelers a connection to the past; it connects us to our memories and stimulates our imaginations.

Why are tourists drawn to this type of tourism? How can small towns attract these types of visitors? Let’s explore what sets Heritage Tourism apart from other forms of travel and how it can enrich the tourism experience for travelers and service providers.

Tourists Crave Authenticity

“Travel opens your heart, broadens your mind, and fills your life with stories to tell.”
Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz

We travel because we want new experiences. We want to step away from the humdrum of our day-to-day lives. We want new foods, stunning landscapes, and cultural immersion. We want connections that reach beyond mere sightseeing.

Cultural Heritage Tourism offers visitors authenticity — an opportunity to experience the distinct qualities of a community firsthand. Visitors can explore historical sites, natural landscapes, and cultural diversity individually or in groups.

Ultimately, this search for authenticity is about finding meaning beyond just ticking off boxes on a bucket list. Tourists want to connect with locals and learn about the history and traditions that make each destination unique – all while supporting local businesses.

Thankfully, Heritage Tourism offers a way forward. Destinations that showcase local art, music, food, and culture will attract more visitors and, consequently, more revenue.

antiques shoppers
A couple browses a museum’s artifacts
Image: Shutterstock

The Numbers Tell the Story

Julie Payne, founder, president, and tourism specialist at Attractour, offers the following:

  • 81% of tourists travel for cultural heritage activities
  • 56% of the U.S. population participated in at least one cultural event while traveling in the past year
  • Cultural tourists spend more and stay longer. Avg. spend is 60% more than the typical American leisure traveler: $1319 per trip vs. $820 per trip
  • 41% of heritage tourists are affluent and well-educated Baby Boomers
  • Millennials are a growth market, with 73% wanting to engage in a destination’s cultural assets

In their Heritage Tourism Market Size & Share Report, 2022-2030, Grand View Research reports that in 2021, global Heritage Tourism was about USD 557 billion, growing at a compound annual rate of 3.8% through 2030. By 2030, the Heritage Tourism market is expected to be in the neighborhood of USD 778 billion.

These numbers can’t be ignored. Small towns across America have a competitive edge in attracting these visitors due to their unique heritage and cultural experiences.

The Two Aspects of Cultural Heritage Tourism

Cultural Tourism

As the name implies, cultural tourism focuses on culture: the art, stories, music, and traditions that make a community unique. It’s an experience-based journey that immerses travelers into the heart and soul of a community. Focusing on local traditions, customs, foods, arts & crafts, or other cultural expressions, visitors gain a deeper appreciation for what makes each place distinctive.

Mabry Mill
Mabry Mill, At milepost 176 along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway, is a popular historical site Image: Author

Heritage Tourism

Heritage Tourism is all about the location: the scenery, historical sites, architecture, and artifacts, that make a place distinctive. It caters to a market of individuals wishing to appreciate the culture and heritage of a location. Heritage Tourism isn’t limited to just museums or historic landmarks, though. It may also include local festivals and celebrations.

Cultural Heritage Tourism: Where the Past Meets Today’s Marketplace

As we’ve seen, Cultural Heritage Tourism is gaining popularity as people seek authentic experiences in a world dominated by mass culture. By promoting their unique history and culture, towns can attract more visitors. Tourists may enjoy your town’s unique experiences while benefiting local businesses.

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