Travelers of all ages are seeking immersive cultural experiences to gain a better understanding of destinations and those who live there. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, about 40% of all tourism across the world accounts for cultural and historical travel, and Grand View Research estimated the market size at more than $500 billion in 2021.

Cheryl Hargrove
Cheryl Hargrove Credit: Courtesy of Hargrove International

“Having a component in a tour about the history and the heritage of a destination really helps set the context of why people move there, live there, and work there, as well as helps travelers appreciate the historic, cultural, and natural assets that make it distinctive from every other place,” says Cheryl Hargrove, president of consulting company Hargrove International and a cultural heritage tourism expert. Hargrove has decades of experience in helping communities, governments, and destinations assess and promote their heritage offerings. After serving in many professional roles in this sector, Hargrove is best known for acting as the first heritage tourism director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

We chatted with Hargrove to learn how tour planners can enhance their cultural heritage tourism offerings.

Q. How do you define cultural heritage tourism?

A. It’s traveling to experience the places that authentically represent the people and places of the past, as well as the present. We look at not only the built environment, but also the people and their traditions, their music, and their food. That really helps set the stage for education, enjoyment, and enlightenment.

Q. How can tour planners enhance the cultural tourism offerings on their itineraries?

A. There are three ways this can be done. One is that tour planners need to dig—not just take a superficial look at a destination, but maybe even think more about a particular theme or a particular aspect of history that may resonate with their group.

The second is to allow enough time for that kind of immersion—whether that’s taking part in an archaeological dig or having some kind of demonstration of that history and heritage. Make sure that you can do one aspect really well rather than doing 10.

The third is to buy local. And by “buy local,” I mean not only buying from local, historic organizations and going to those local businesses, but also having a historian who can be your local guide—someone who can provide that immersive experience. There’s also a great opportunity for giving back, with guests knowing that in some way their participation at a destination is going to help further the mission of a historical society or museum.

Q. How can tour planners ensure they’re being respectful of difficult historical topics?

A. I always think it’s a good idea to be mindful of the environment you’re walking into. There are some sensitive issues that we deal with in history and heritage, and it’s important to be respectful of those diverse conversations. I think one element of hosting a tour to a more difficult location or to a historical site that deals with difficult topics is to provide time for the group to discuss that experience.

For instance, if you go to the new International African American Museum opening this summer in Charleston, South Carolina, that is going to deal with some very difficult topics of slavery. Tour planners can allow some time afterward for the group to have a conversation and facilitate that understanding of what they’ve experienced. This is another reason why having a local historian guide is key, because they can help make the group more comfortable, or at least more mindful, of those periods of history. The value of being on a group tour is that you have that dialogue. You can have some really transformational learning experiences if you’re given that time for reflection in a group setting.

Q. How does cultural heritage tourism relate to sustainability?

A. We need to make sure that we are celebrating people and their traditions. By touring places that retain those tangible and intangible assets, we’re able to be better stewards of them. For instance, I live on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Here, it’s important to make people understand who the Gullah and Geechee are and what their traditions look like. Being able to present some of their art forms—whether that be food, dance, singing, or shouting—and helping people understand the context of how that originated, is a way to make future generations aware and to make sure it’s around for future generations.

Tour planners can help guests understand what a community holds as important to them, whether that be a downtown, a religious structure, music, or even a particular craft.Finding those elements that help connect people to place is what gives a good discovery of a destination.

Q. What other cultural heritage resources should tour operators consider?

A. Historical societies are a good first resource. Or if there’s a National Park Service unit, those are always great places to start, in part because most of the National Park Service units are going to have some kind of connection with a local heritage association or their DMO. And they always have really good resources and have great knowledge about their particular site or their particular area.

Tour planners can also consider contacting local universities and seeing if they have a history department and a professor who could provide some information. Main street associations could be another area to explore.

Featured Image Credit: Adobe/Hanna Tor