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What is cultural tourism and why is it growing?

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Cultural tourism is big business. Some people seek to embark on their travels with the sole intention of having a ‘cultural’ experience, whereas others may experience culture as a byproduct of their trip. We can argue that there is some form of cultural tourism in most holidays (even when taking an all-inclusive holiday you might try to local beer, for example).

But what do we mean by the term ‘cultural tourism’? What’s it all about? In this post I will explain what is meant by the term cultural tourism, providing a range of academic definitions. I will also explain what the different types of cultural tourists are, give examples of cultural tourism activities and discuss the impacts of cultural tourism. Lastly, I will provide a brief summary of some popular cultural tourism destinations.

What is cultural tourism?

Cultural tourism is the act of travellers visiting particular destinations in order to experience and learn about a particular culture. This can include many activities such as; attending events and festivals, visiting museums and tasting the local food and drinks.

Cultural tourism can also be an unintentional part of the tourism experience, whereby cultural immersion (with the local people, their language, customs, cuisine etc) is an inevitable part of a person’s holiday.

Cultural tourism definitions

It has been suggested that tourism is the ideal arena in which to investigate the nature of cultural production (MacCannell, 1976). Tourism provides endless opportunities to learn about the way other people live, about their society and their traditions. Whether you are attending the Running of the Bulls Festival in Pamplona, visiting the pyramids in ancient Egypt, taking a tour of the tea plantations in China or enjoying the locally brewed Ouzo on your all-inclusive holiday to Greece, you will inevitably encounter some form of cultural tourism as part of your holiday experience.

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) (1985) broadly define cultural tourism as the movements of persons who satisfy the human need for diversity, tending to raise the cultural level of the individual and giving rise to new knowledge, experience and encounters. Cultural tourism is commonly associated with education in this way, some describing it more narrowly as educational cultural tourism (e.g. Bualis and Costa, 2006; Harner and Swarbrooke, 2007; Richards, 2005).

Although a common, more specific definition has not been agreed amongst academics due to the complexity and subjectivity of the term, there do appear to be two distinct viewpoints. The first focusses upon the consumption of cultural products such as sites or monuments (Bonink, 1992; Munsters, 1994), and the second comprises all aspects of travel, where travellers learn about the history and heritage of others or about their contemporary ways of life or thought (MacIntosh and Goeldner, 1986).

Csapo (2012) pertains that the umbrella term of cultural tourism can encompass a number of tourism forms including heritage (material e.g. historic buildings and non-material e.g. literature, arts), cultural thematic routes (e.g. spiritual, gastronomic, linguistic), cultural city tourism, traditions/ethnic tourism, events and festivals, religious tourism and creative culture (e.g. performing arts, crafts).

Types of cultural tourists

In attempt to understand the scope of cultural tourism academics have developed a number of typologies, usually based upon the tourist’s level of motivation.

Bywater (1993) differentiated tourists according to whether they were culturally interested, motivated or inspired.

Culturally interested tourists demonstrate a general interest in culture and consume cultural attractions casually as part of a holiday rather than consciously planning to do so.

Culturally motivated tourists consume culture as a major part of their trip, but do not choose their destination on the basis of specific cultural experiences, whereas for culturally inspired tourists culture is the main goal of their holiday. 

A more complex typology was proposed by McKercher and Du Cros (2002), who defined tourists based upon the depth of the cultural experience sought, distinguishing them in to one of five hierarchical categories. 

The first is the purposeful cultural tourist for whom cultural tourism is their primary motive for travel. These tourists have a very deep cultural experience. 

The second category is the sightseeing cultural tourist for whom cultural tourism is a primary reason for visiting a destination, but the experience is more shallow in nature.

The serendipitous cultural tourist does not travel for cultural reasons, but who, after participating, ends up having a deep cultural tourism experience, whilst the casual cultural tourist is weakly motivated by culture and subsequently has a shallow experience. 

Lastly, the incidental cultural tourist is one who does not travel for cultural tourism reasons but nonetheless participates in some activities and has shallow experiences. 

Adapting this theory, Petroman et al (2013) segments tourists based upon their preferred cultural activities.

The purposeful cultural tourist, described as according to Mckercher and Du Cros (2002), enjoys learning experiences that challenge them intellectually and visits history museums, art galleries, temples and heritage sites that are less known.

The tour-amateur cultural tourist is akin with the sightseeing cultural tourist above and they often travel long distances, visit remote areas, enjoy tours and wandering through the streets.

The occasional cultural tourist plays a moderate role in the decision of travelling and enjoys an insignificant cultural experience, their preferred activities being to visit attractions and temples that are easy to reach and to explore, although not to the extent that the tour-amateur cultural tourist does.

The incidental cultural tourist plays a small or no role in the decision to travel and enjoys an insignificant cultural experience, whilst visiting attractions that area within easy reach and heritage theme parks.

The last segment is the accidental cultural tourist, who plays a small or no role in the decision to travel but enjoys a deep cultural experience. This tourist type is diverse and as such has no preferred activities attributed to it. 

Importance of cultural tourism

Cultural tourism is important for many reasons. Perhaps the most prominent reason is the social impact that it brings.

Cultural tourism can help reinforce identities, enhance cross cultural understanding and preserve the heritage and culture of an area. I have discussed these advantages at length in my post The Social Impacts of Tourism, so you may want to head over there for more detail.

Cultural tourism can also have positive economic impacts. Tourists who visit an area to learn more about a culture or who visit cultural tourism attraction, such as museums or shows, during their trip help to contribute to the economy of the area. Attractions must be staffed, bringing with it employment prospects and tertiary businesses can also benefit, such as restaurants, taxi firms and hotels.

Furthermore, for those seeking a deep cultural experience, options such as homestays can have positive economic benefits to the members of the community who host the tourists.

Read also: Overtourism explained: What, why and where

Personally, I think that one of the most important benefits of cultural tourism is the educational aspect. Tourists and hosts alike can learn more about different ways of life. This can help to broaden one’s mind, it can help one to think differently and to be more objective. These are qualities that can have many positive effects on a person and which can contribute to making them more employable in the future.

Cultural tourism activities

Whether a tourist is seeking a deep cultural experience or otherwise, there are a wide range of activities that can be classified as cultural tourism. Here are a few examples:

  • Staying with a local family in a homestay
  • Having a tour around a village or town
  • Learning about local employment, for example through a tour of a tea plantation or factory
  • Undertaking volunteer work in the local community
  • Taking a course such as cooking, art, embroidery etc
  • Visiting a museum
  • Visiting a religious building, such as a Mosque
  • Socialising with members of the local community
  • Visiting a local market or shopping area
  • Trying the local food and drink
  • Going to a cultural show or performance
  • Visiting historic monuments

Impacts of cultural tourism

There are a range of impacts resulting from cultural tourism activities, both good and bad. Here are some of the most common examples:

Positive impacts of cultural tourism

Revitalisation of Culture and Art

Some destinations will encourage local cultures and arts to be revitalised. This may be in the form of museum exhibitions, in the way that restaurants and shops are decorated and in the entertainment on offer, for example.

This may help promote traditions that may have become distant.

Preservation of Heritage

Many tourists will visit the destination especially to see its local heritage. It is for this reason that many destinations will make every effort to preserve its heritage.

This could include putting restrictions in place or limiting tourist numbers, if necessary. This is often an example of careful tourism planning and sustainable tourism management.

This text by Hyung You Park explains the principles of heritage tourism in more detail.

Negative impacts of cultural tourism

Social Change

Social change is basically referring to changes in the way that society acts or behaves. Unfortunately, there are many changes that come about as a result of tourism that are not desirable.

There are many examples throughout the world where local populations have changed because of tourism. Perhaps they have changed the way that they speak or the way that they dress. Perhaps they have been introduced to alcohol through the tourism industry or they have become resentful of rich tourists and turned to crime. These are just a few examples of the negative social impacts of tourism.

Read also: Business tourism explained: What, why and where

Globalisation and the Destruction of Preservation and Heritage

Globalisation is the way in which the world is becoming increasingly connected. We are losing our individuality and gaining a sense of ‘global being’, whereby we more and more alike than ever before.

Globalisation is inevitable in the tourism industry because of the interaction between tourists and hosts, which typically come from different geographic and cultural backgrounds. It is this interaction that encourage us to become more alike.

Standardisation and Commercialisation

Similarly, destinations risk standardisation in the process of satisfying tourists’ desires for familiar facilities and experiences.

While landscape, accommodation, food and drinks, etc., must meet the tourists’ desire for the new and unfamiliar, they must at the same time not be too new or strange because few tourists are actually looking for completely new things (think again about the toilet example I have previously).

Tourists often look for recognisable facilities in an unfamiliar environment, like well-known fast-food restaurants and hotel chains. Tourist like some things to be standardised (the toilet, their breakfast, their drinks, the language spoken etc), but others to be different (dinner options, music, weather, tourist attractions etc).

Loss of Authenticity 

Along similar lines to globalisation is the loss of authenticity that often results from tourism.

Authenticity is essentially something that is original or unchanged. It is not fake or reproduced in any way.

The Western world believe that a tourist destination is no longer authentic when their cultural values and traditions change. But I would argue is this not natural? Is culture suppose to stay the same or it suppose to evolve throughout each generation? 

Take a look at the likes of the long neck tribe in Thailand or the Maasai Tribe in Africa. These are two examples of cultures which have remained ‘unchanged’ for the sole purpose of tourism. They appear not to have changed the way that they dress, they way that they speak or the way that they act in generations, all for the purpose of tourism.

You can learn more about what is authenticity in tourism here or see some examples of staged authenticity in this post.

Culture clashes

Because tourism involves movement of people to different geographical locations cultural clashes can take place as a result of differences in cultures, ethnic and religious groups, values, lifestyles, languages and levels of prosperity.

Read also: Environmental impacts of tourism

The attitude of local residents towards tourism development may unfold through the stages of euphoria, where visitors are very welcome, through apathy, irritation and potentially antagonism when anti-tourist attitudes begin to grow among local people. This is represented in Doxey’s Irritation Index, as shown below.

Doxey’s Irritation Index

Tourist-host relationships

Culture clashes can also be exasperated by the fundamental differences in culture between the hosts and the tourists.

There is likely to be economic inequality between locals and tourists who are spending more than they usually do at home. This can cause resentment from the hosts towards the tourists, particularly when they see them wearing expensive jewellery or using plush cameras etc that they know they can’t afford themselves.

Further to this, tourists often, out of ignorance or carelessness, fail to respect local customs and moral values. 

There are many examples of ways that tourists offend the local population, often unintentionally. Did you know that you should never put your back to a Buddha? Or show the sole of your feet to a Thai person? Or show romantic affection in public in the Middle East?

Cultural tourism destinations

Whilst many would argue that cultural tourism is ingrained to some extent in travel to any country, there are some particular destinations that are well-known for their ability to provide tourists with a cultural experience.

Cultural tourism in India

It is impossible not to visit India and experience the culture. Even if you are staying in a 5 star Western all-inclusive hotel in Goa, you will still test Indian curries, be spoken to by Indian workers and see life outside of the hotel on your transfer to and from the airport.

For most people who travel to India, however, cultural tourism is far more than peeking outside of the enclave tourism bubble of their all-inclusive hotel.

Thousands of international tourists visit the Taj Mahal each year. Many more people visit the various Hindu and Buddhist temples scattered throughout the country as well as the various Mosques. Some visit the famous Varanassi to learn about reincarnation.

Most tourists who visit India will try the local dal, eat the fresh mutton and taste chai.

All of these activities are popular cultural tourism activities.

Cultural tourism in Thailand

Thailand is another destination that offers great cultural tourism potential. From the Buddhist temples and monuments and the yoga retreats to homestays and village tours, there are ample cultural tourism opportunities in Thailand.

Cultural tourism in Israel

Israel is popular with religious tourists and those who are taking a religious pilgrimage, as well as leisure tourists. I visited Israel and loved travelling around to see the various sights, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. I’m not religious in any way, but I loved learning about the history, traditions and cultures.

Cultural tourism in New York

New York is a city that is bustling with culture. It is world famous for its museums and you can learn about anything from World War Two to the Twin Towers here.

Many would argue that shopping is ingrained in the culture of those who live in New York and many tourists will take advantage of the wide selection of products on offer and bargains to be had on their travels to New York.

You can also treat yourself to watching a traditional West End show, trying some of the famous New York Cheesecake and enjoying a cocktail in Times Square!

Cultural tourism in Dubai

Dubai might not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of cultural tourism, but it does, in fact, have a great offering.

What I find particular intriguing about Dubai is the mix of old and new. One minute you can be exploring the glitz and glamour of the many high-end shopping malls and skyscrapers and the next you can be walking through a traditional Arabian souk.

Cultural tourism: Conclusion

As you can see, there is big business in cultural tourism. With a wide range of types of cultural tourists and types of cultural tourism experiences, this is a tourism sector that has remarkable potential. However, as always, it is imperative to ensure that sustainable tourism practices are utilised to mitigate any negative impacts of cultural tourism.

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Further reading

Want to learn more about cultural tourism? See my recommended reading list below.

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