Heritage is a key attraction that makes a country unique in terms of touristic offers. Heritage attractions are a favorite to tourists who want to experience places, appreciate artifacts, and observe activities that authentically represent the stories of peoples past and present. Heritage attractions can be natural, e.g. rural landscapes and national parks; intangible, e.g. folkways and festivals; tangible, for example, historical cities; and human-made like museums and ruins.
Destinations across East Africa are rich in heritage resources for tourism and can tap this potential to add to overall tourism contribution to the economy. In this regard, the STTA young change-makers held a tweet chat on 27th June 2020 discussing the Key concerns for tourism destinations regarding heritage tourism. This coincided with the month for celebrating world sustainable gastronomy day, an international event observed every 18th June to appreciate culinary heritage. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) acknowledges gastronomy as an expression of culinary heritage and features a list of gastronomy cities across the globe, from the United States San Antonio’s distinct cuisine in the West, to Shunde in the East, China’s traditional agricultural county which boasts delicacies of high nutritional value. Many of these cities use their richness in culinary heritage to attract visitors, boasting high-quality restaurants that serve a wide range of local foods. Heritage tourism was an interesting discussion topic and had an interactive session where the audience gave their views regarding assets that destinations have for heritage tourism, concerns for local communities about heritage tourism, visitor’s interest in heritage tourism, and the role of tour guides mediating multiple interpretations of heritage. This article summarizes all the discussion and views from the twitter chat.
What assets do destinations have for heritage tourism?
Destination assets for heritage tourism vary from place to place, and they include iconic discoveries, sites, histories archaeological findings, art that unite people in the destination. Authentic artifacts and activities i.e. the stories of the past are also good resources that tourism uses for its heritage attractions. Heritage can include tangible and intangible national assets like history, architecture, or cultural elements. Heritage tourism may also include activities that authentically represent the ancestry of the community. Buildings, which are part of archaeological heritage, are good assets to market a destination for tourism. Intangible assets of heritage tourism include unique language, folkways, spirituality, dance, festivals, and art traditions.
Such assets are of great value to society as part of their identity and bring pride to the people. Society, therefore, memorializes heritage in diverse ways for continuity i.e. through scriptures, which is the case of iconic personalities to represent history. Heritage has a presence at four major scales; the international scale, which includes the UNESCO world heritage list; national scale including monuments that symbolize the values or history shared at the national level; local scale comprising local memorials, local historical museums, and historical sites; personal level e.g. family history.
What are the concerns for local communities in heritage tourism?
Local communities are concerned about the benefits they will get from heritage tourism, without the degradation of what they currently have. They, therefore, play a crucial role in protecting assets for heritage tourism. Communities want to involvement in heritage tourism development; otherwise, their absence in support may lead to the desired outcomes of development not being achieved. The community may want tourism by its terms to guide accurate representation of heritage tourism if the community is not involved. A reason for this is that heritage is not the same for everybody and the community may have a different perspective from what the tourism developer is trying to present. For host communities, particularly in Africa, the emphasis is that measuring heritage in destinations should not be limited to tangible assets but thinks through the value of spiritual & other intangible assets. This is because Africa memorialized its heritage assets spiritually.
Host communities want heritage to be authentic in presentation, credible in interpretation, ethical in consumption, and respectful in communication. Despite heritage tourism building communities pride from tourism, some may have memories of unwanted past where locals may hesitate to be identified with it even if it may bring earnings to the community. As much as destinations have diverse assets for heritage, it is only generations decide what to preserve from past and from history. They select what deserves transmission to the following generation because heritage involves a selective process.
What is the visitors’ interest in heritage tourism?
Visitors are interested to know more about the beliefs and practices i.e. struggles and successes that shaped the shared identity of a people. Some of these visitors may share some degree of ancestry with the people whose history they are interested in. Unfortunately, the actual experience in heritage tourism is different from one visitor to another but the common motivation is to experience another society or understand your own society. Visitors get satisfaction in authentic experiences for heritage tourism and appreciate it more. Some visitors are serious and interested to gather more knowledge from heritage tourism while others are casual heritage tourists, i.e. they do not plan to visit a heritage site but they decide to visit once they discover it is in a destination where they are.
Sometimes visitor interests in heritage tourism lie in confronting histories. For example, Jews returning to holocaust sites or the next generation of Rwandese visiting the genocide museum. Visitor interests can be in gathering collectible souvenirs of world histories, hence the motivation for the memorialization of heritage. Other visitors can develop interests because of the popularity of heritage sites. New interest in heritage tourism is emerging with generation z. Their interest is in Instagrammable pictures and selfies, and less of history.
Visitor interests in heritage tourism may vary, but common motivations are the pursuit of entertainment, education, and immersion. Some are interested in learning something new and expand their skills, while others go for it for entertainment and/ or immersion (deep involvement in heritage tourism). The diversity of visitor interests in heritage tourism is a great opportunity for destinations to create diversified experiences around heritage to meet these interests.
What is the role of tour guides in mediating multiple interpretations of heritage tourism?
Guided tours are an essential part of tourism production and consumption at heritage sites where Tour guides present the heritage wealth of places. Guides are the compass that visitors need to navigate heritage tourism. Guides must, therefore, understand every interest in heritage and address every visitor’s particular interest during interpretation. Their interpretation is a remarkable profile of the tour that can help determine if the visitors are satisfied. Tourists can interpret everything they experience in their own way that is why the success of heritage tourism depends on the performance of the tour guide. They are able to know the key interest of the visitors thus getting to know the preferences of the visitor and address every visitor’s particular interest during interpretation.
By understanding that guiding is general and that hosting is particular, guides can mediate multiple interpretations of heritage attractions. Interpretation of heritage in most heritage sites has been lost over time because of poor memorialization resulting in changed narratives. Things get worse when interpretation is left to destination marketing organizations. Often times, tour guides carry on the stories of heritage as authorized by the destination planners. Yet destination planners distort histories behind a heritage in favor of the number of visitors. For this reason, guides must be aware of community accounts of heritage and be informed by historical truths. Harmonization of information for the common good with minimal alteration can only be achieved if the custodians of heritage tell it themselves. Tour guides educate visitors on the value of heritage tourism assets while aiming to create meaningful experiences for the visitor and respectful interactions between community and tourist.
The interpretation of heritage tourism is important and should move away from monologues that have defined heritage tourism and changed narratives and be about full disclosure. Heritage tourism can be sustainable if it promotes destination assets that communities, visitors, and nations at large are proud to be identified with. Tourism must be seen and identified in a broad perspective and address the case of heritage tourism.
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Guest writer: James Maina, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Muranga University of Technology, Kenya.