rethinking cultural heritage tourism

Promoting Heritage

I spent a couple of days last week attending the “Saving Places Conference” put on by the fine folks at Colorado Preservation. Colorado Preservation is recognized as one of the finest state organizations in the country focused on cultural heritage preservation. The Saving Places Conference is a great example of their excellent programs.

Part of the reason I was there was as a representative of The Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery, as Riverside was selected as one of Colorado’s most endangered places for 2008.

But I was also interested in the theme of this year’s conference, “Promoting Colorado’s Heritage”; I wanted to find out whether there are some innovative approaches to creating compelling cultural heritage experiences for the broader community, not just for those who are dedicated preservationists (the more extreme of which are sometimes referred to as hysterical preservationists).

It was great to see so many people dedicated to preservation in one place; I’m not sure how many people were there, but it had to be about 300 or so, ranging from homeowners to architects to developers to representatives of the forest service. The sessions ranged from very detailed descriptions of how to engage in preservation activities (apparently there is no way to preserve a wooden grave marker) to the history of urban renewal (at some point, historic preservation became a key identity factor that brought investment into cities in a way that urban renewal couldn’t).

There was also a lot of focus on the relationship between green design and historical preservation – several of the presenters quoted Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects as saying that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

The connections between green design and historical preservation pointed to one of the implicit themes of the conference – the importance of making connections. Historical preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s part of the fabric of our lives, adding richness and value without being a separate part of our experience. One of the keynote speakers at the conference, Daniel Jordan of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, said that preservationists are the “stewards of stories.” Yes, absolutely, but the stories of our lives are not one dimensional. We have to connect them to lived experience.

Why do you travel?

In general, people don’t like to be boxed in. History is boring, something you learn in school, heritage sounds boring, and culture sounds stuffy.

People travel for a wide variety of reasons, each tied to their own passions, to what they like to do. Some people like camping, hiking, and adventure. Some prefer the local beer, local food, or just hanging out with the locals.

And yet, when people travel travel, they regularly visit historic heritage and cultural sites. History adds the richness and texture to their travels. So, even though they don’t self-identify as historical travelers, in reality it’s an important part of the experience. In a sense, history, heritage, and culture are how we make the connection. It’s how we make the story make sense.

Making Connections

A couple of the presentations at the conference spoke to the importance of cross-pollinating heritage travel with other activities. For instance, on a panel on tourism in Southeastern Colorado a speaker mentioned the connection between natural and heritage travel – you can go birding on the plains (where you can see the lesser chicken and 400 other species of birds) while you are exploring the mountain branch of the Old Santa Fe Trail. Or, from a panel on ‘agri-tainment’ (now that’s a concept), Kelli Hepner talked about Delta County’s efforts to connect wine, orchards, the slow foods movement, and exploring the black canyon national monument.

All this is great, but what is difficult is communicating with individuals who don’t want to be boxed in based on my idea (or anyone’s idea) of what they should do. This is where I found people engaging in all sorts of clever technical tricks to find, rate, and ultimately decide on what to do when they travel.

There are some websites and applications that can help in this process. Yahoo Travel, Trip Advisor, Home and Abroad, and others attempt to bridge the gap between expert recommendations and personal preferences. To my mind, no one has done it in a truly effective way. It’s a challenging problem, but also a great opportunity. Ultimately, it could redefine the world of cultural heritage tourism.

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