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Rethinking Cultural Tourism

June 22, 2021 Originally published on the Edward Elgar Blog

By Greg Richards[i] Culture is an almost compulsory element of the tourist experience in most tourism destinations. As research by the UNWTO indicates, ‘cultural tourism’ accounts for around 40% of international tourism flows. Despite considerable growth in cultural tourism worldwide, the basic academic approach cultural tourism has changed little. People travelling to experience culture through attractions, events and tours are viewed as cultural tourists, which is also seen as a ‘good’ form of tourism because it generates high expenditure and supports local culture. In fact, cultural tourism has changed considerably in recent decades. It has moved from being a niche activity for the elite into a pastime for the masses. Before the pandemic, city centres around the globe were heaving with ‘cultural tourists’ eager to take selfies in front of the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal.

The emergence of ‘mass cultural tourism’ in recent years has signalled the need to rethink the concept. This is exactly what the new book Rethinking Cultural Tourism sets out to do. It contains innovations in both the theory and practice of cultural tourism, developing a new practice-based model and analysing new market trends, such as the growth of ‘new urban tourism’ and the rise of curated tourism experiences.

The new model of cultural tourism is based on ‘third-generation practice theory’, building on the foundational practice approaches of Giddens and Bourdieu, extending the second-generation analysis of practice elements developed by Elizabeth Shove and others. Third-generation practice theory adds ‘emotional energy’ as a driving mechanism for cultural tourism consumption, drawing from the interaction ritual theory of Randall Collins. Examples in the book show how emerging cultural tourism rituals, such as viewing street art, operate in a cultural field populated by cultural producers, curators, critics, and tourism entrepreneurs, who engage with consumers to co-create new cultural tourism experiences. These rituals help to generate both ‘internal goods’, or the emotional energy and group solidarity required to sustain the ritual, and the ‘external goods’ or resources required to support the ritual, such as collective identities and the cultural heritage attached to these. This co-creative view of cultural tourism moves our thinking on considerably from the previous focus on the production of cultural experiences by the tourism industry for passive consumption by tourists.

An important consequence of co-creation practices has been the expansion of cultural tourism experiences. A wider range of actors has become involved in experience creation, including the Airbnb host, the graffiti artist, the craft beer brewer, and the ordinary person in the street, who also plays a part in constructing locality. The growing range of cultural phenomena entering the tourism system presents tourists with a flood of opportunities, and they increasingly need help in making their cultural tourism choices. The book introduces the ‘Curatorial Turn’ as a marker of this change. Whereas cultural tourism used to be produced by tour operators, today the field in increasingly filled with travel curators: experts and skilled consumers who cut out the hard work of choosing experiences by presenting curated selections. The media and the tourism industry are now full of curated lists, such as Culture Trip’s 15 Best Cities In The World For Culture Lovers, The 12 Best US Cities To Visit For Culture, or Europe’s 15 Best Cities for Arts & Culture. Increasingly these curated experiences include not just the high culture of museums and monuments, but cool and atmospheric corners of everyday life. For example, Time Out’s listing of The 40 coolest neighbourhoods in the world puts the Esquerra de l’Eixample in Barcelona at Number 1, but also includes much less famous districts such as Opebi in Lagos, Bonfim in Porto and Nørrebro in Copenhagen. The latter is also a good example of how city districts have been framed to tourists as new neighbourhoods, or as Copenhagen’s ‘end of tourism’ marketing plan calls them: ‘localhoods’.

The localisation of cultural tourism has also spurred new discussions about the nature of authenticity. Increasingly it seems that consumers are aware that the cultural experiences they are presented with are rarely ‘authentic’ in objective terms, but what they look for is something ‘local’. Again, the localisation of experiences is supported by a raft of curated websites, such as Spotted by Locals and Local Alike. All of these new intermediaries offer contact with local people as a badge of authenticity, and the promise of getting under the skin of local culture. The localising fervour now gripping the cultural tourism scene is based on very different ideals from the concept of universal cultural values that pervaded the growth of World Heritage Sites.

As well as dissecting new cultural tourism trends, the book also debunks some of the more persistent cultural tourism myths. For example, the section ‘Lies, damn lies and cultural tourism’ discussed how the discourse about cultural tourism as an important and rapidly growing area of international tourism has become divorced from the statistical evidence. Many claims about cultural tourism are made in the absence of any research, as UNWTO studies show. Where figures are available, they don’t always support the discourse of rapid growth. For example, research in Malta indicates that using a broad definition of tourists visiting a cultural site, the proportion of cultural tourists rose from 19% in 1991 to over 50% in 2018. With a narrow definition of tourists motivated to visit Malta by culture, however, there was a decline in ‘cultural tourism’ from 13% in 2007 to 10.8% in 2019. These contrasting trends not only underline the importance of measurement and definition in cultural tourism, but they also point to culture becoming a more integral part of tourism in general, rather than the specialised niche it was in the 1980s.

Figure 1 – A model of ritual behaviour in cultural tourism

[i] Greg Richards and been researching cultural tourism for over 30 years. He launched the ATLAS Cultural Tourism Project while based at the University of North London, and continued to direct the project from subsequent bases in Amsterdam and Barcelona. He is currently Professor of Placemaking and Events at Breda University of Applied Sciences and Professor of Leisure Studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Rethinking Cultural Tourism by Greg Richards is out now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline

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