Cultural tourism: How the arts and travel sectors can bounce back together

When you visit a city or a town, what sorts of experiences do you seek out? Is the regional art gallery, for example, always a must-see? Do you track down the local concert listings? Or maybe you’re the type of traveller who hasn’t truly visited a place until you’ve sampled some of its specialty dessert (or perhaps its famous tipple). If any of these sound familiar, you might be what’s known as a cultural tourist.

Cultural tourism describes a type of travel in which the visitor’s primary motivation is to learn about and experience the cultural products and practices of a destination. It represents a very attractive market for the tourism and culture sectors alike. In Ontario, we know that cultural tourists stay longer than the average overnight visitor (4.4 nights vs 3.1 nights) and spend nearly double the money at their destination as well ($667 vs. $374). 

But while the activity generates big business for both industries, historically, the tourism and culture sectors have rarely worked together on this mutual mission to attract visitors. For all of the overlap the sides seem to share, they communicate little and collaborate less. However, that soon might start to change. 

Last week, on June 16 and 17, Ontario Culture Days convened professionals from both the culture and tourism sectors for a two-day virtual symposium called Now, into the Future: Cultural Tourism in Ontario. The conference gave industry leaders from organizations of every size a forum to discuss their group’s challenges, successes and plans. Moreover, it was an opportunity to open lines of communication, identify synergies and foster new relationships. 

As the province reopens and both hard-hit industries embark on their recovery, might a new focus around cultural tourism help organizations, vendors, and producers from both sectors bounce back together?

“There is no curbside pickup for culture,” says Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University and one of the conference’s main consultants. Culture, instead, is largely dependent on the abilities for people to travel and gather, so the COVID pandemic has emphasized just how interrelated the two sectors are. 

Recovery represents a critical — perhaps existential — moment to learn how they can better advantage each other and implement those strategies. The main problem, Dimanche explains, is simply that “the culture world and the tourism professionals don’t necessarily know each other very well.” He likens the industries to “two siblings” that “work in their own ways and play their own games.” 

He explains that in order to bridge the divide “we need a number of stakeholders who will become advocates for the cause — in tourism as well as culture. And then there will be a kind of snowball effect.”

During the symposium, Dimanche led a talk on the prospect of what’s called “regenerative tourism” — a more holistic approach to travel, in which tourism activities are designed specifically to involve and benefit the entire community of the destination. The example he provides is Newfoundland’s Fogo Island, where the luxury hotel, which may be considered its main draw, works closely with the islands famous art residency as well its local food producers, furniture makers, artisans, and craftspeople to construct a unique offer that’s not only attractive to visitors but also beneficial to the wider community of Fogo Island outside just the hospitality sector. 

In her opening remarks at the symposium, Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, referred to Ontario as “the world in one province.” While international travel may be slow to resume, many participants mentioned how Ontario might better promote the incredible cultural diversity in its own backyard. 

Shawn Newman, an arts professional and consultant for the conference, says there’s the opportunity for Ontarians to practice a sort of cultural tourism at home in Ontario — within their own region or city even — because “different communities represent different cultures as wells as different ways of life and ways of knowing.”

Another prevalent theme throughout the symposium was the unique value proposition smaller markets can offer. When reopening, larger urban centres will contend with greater competition for venue space, tighter restrictions, capacity issues and overcrowding concerns, all of which provide incentives for Ontario tourists to travel further off the beaten track, so to speak. 

David MacLachlan from Destination Northern Ontario said a survey of 17,000 respondents that his group recently conducted found that people were willing to travel further than usual, they were more willing to spend multiple days travelling to their destination and they were interested in longer stays at their destination. 

“(There’s) a real opportunity this year to get people off the main highways and into some of the smaller destinations,” MacLachlan says, and the local museums, festivals, and cultural organizations ought to be working together with the tourism folk to create compelling offers that highlights what can only be experienced in their town, city or region.  

This notion of offering tourists a distinct and authentic experience of place was perhaps one of the conference’s most resounding messages. In a presentation focused on Japanese bathing culture, Joseph Cheer from the Centre for Tourism Research at Wakayama University in Wakayama, Japan, set out the essential challenge of cultural tourism: “cultural tourism must draw on what is intrinsically in its place;” at the same time, “[it] should be more than a Disneyfied performance of a culture and its people. [It] must be respectful, acknowledging the wishes of its owners — not just bending to the industry that commodifies it.” 

Discussing the importance of “placemaking,” professor Greg Richards of Breda University in the Netherlands referenced the 1983 Italo Calvino novel Mr. Palomar, where, in one scene, the title character compares the bounty on display at his local cheese shop to the Louvre. 

“This is an interesting analogy,” Richards says, “which reveals the everyday creativity that can be accessed by places to develop, cultural and creative experiences, and, of course, as a support for tourism development as well.” Local history, knowledge, and artistry need to be foregrounded to define a sense of place — and to this end, the tourism and culture industries must work in tandem.

For a long time, Ontario’s slogan was “Yours to discover.” While there’s certainly never been more to discover in the province, with some extra collaboration between the organizations that help make Ontario so special and the ones who attract people here because it is so special, visitors and residents alike will discover so much more. 

Chris Hampton is a freelance writer based in Hamilton.

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