Past Perfect: Explorations of Heritage Tourism

By Confer, John. C.; Kerstetter, Deborah L. | Parks & Recreation, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Past Perfect: Explorations of Heritage Tourism


Confer, John. C., Kerstetter, Deborah L., Parks & Recreation


The tourism industry has grown phenomenally in the past few decades. Greater numbers of people worldwide are traveling nationally and internationally and, concomitantly, global spending on travel and tourism has more than doubled (Travel Industry Association, 1999). Coupled with the growth in tourism is a booming interest in history, heritage, and culture. In addition to a number of magazines devoted to history -- American Heritage, America's Civil War, Civil War Times, American History, American History Illustrated, Early American Life, Historic Preservation, and World War II -- publications such as Historic Traveler and Westylvania magazine, a regional magazine dedicated to the history, heritage, and culture of southwestern Pennsylvania, are gaining popularity. Given Americans' fascination with their history, it is not surprising that heritage has become a "major catalyst for the whole travel experience" (Hall & Zeppel, 1990).

What is Heritage, Tourism?

Millar (1989) and others (Hardy, 1988; Tighe, 1986) suggest that heritage tourism is "about the cultural traditions, places and values that ... groups throughout the world are proud to conserve." Cultural traditions such as family patterns, religious practices, folklore traditions, and social customs attract individuals interested in heritage (Collins, 1983; Weiler & Hall, 1992) as do monuments, museums, battlefields, historic structures, and landmarks (Konrad, 1982; McNulty, 1991). According to Tassell and Tassell (1990), heritage tourism also includes natural heritage sites -- gardens, wilderness areas of scenic beauty, and valued cultural landscapes. Regardless of the heritage attraction, Richards (1996) and Prentice (1993) argue that heritage tourism is about searching for something that links the past and the present. It is integrally tied to nostalgia. For example, a family makes a weekend vacation of traveling to and visiting their ancestral homestead.

Unfortunately, due to the attractiveness of heritage as a commodity, an increasing number of areas are being promoted as "heritage" destinations (Herbert, 1995). Essentially, in tourism, the term heritage has come to mean landscapes, natural history, buildings, artifacts, and cultural traditions that are "either literally or metaphorically passed on from one generation to the other, but those among these things which can be portrayed for promotion as tourism products" {Prentice, 1993).

Despite the loose definition of heritage tourism, its growth is beyond contention (Mason, 1993). Between 1991 and 1995 interest in heritage tourism increased 16 percent. And this interest continues to grow. Recently, TIA reported that approximately 54 million adults had visited a museum or historical site in the past year (1999). There are no indications that this trend has topped out.

The Heritage Tourist

When compared to travelers overall, individuals who travel to heritage and cultural sites (i.e., heritage tourists) are better educated and have a higher average annual income (TIA, 1997). They more often travel in couples or large groups and are twice as likely to take group tours. On average, heritage tourists spend significantly more than general travelers (TIA, 1999).

While demographic and travel behavior characteristics give us some insight, "The selective appeal of heritage places may be [best] explained by considering the ... needs and motivations of those people who visit, or who do not visit, such places ..." (Light & Prentice, 1994). Fun, according to Hawley {1990), is secondary to learning for heritage tourists because they travel to increase their knowledge of people, places and things -- to experience a sense of nostalgia for the past. Prentice and Prentice {1989) and Thomas {1989) support his contention and suggest that an interest in learning has increased among heritage tourists over the past 20 years. According to Weiler and Hall (1992), heritage tourists are motivated "more by a search for heritage experiences than by a detailed interest in factual history. …

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