The Accidental Tourist – Culture & Tourism

Andrew Ormston explores ways of improving the relationship between the cultural and tourism sectors.  Arts Professional Magazine -April 08

In 1911 Thomas Mann was on holiday in Venice. One year later, ‘Death in Venice’ was published, with the lead character Aschenbach cast as a very particular cultural tourist. Seventy-five years later I am enjoying Benjamin Britten’s wonderful opera version at the London Coliseum surrounded by American, Japanese and European cultural tourists. Why, when the relationship between culture and tourism has been seamless for generations, do the two sectors struggle so much when in the same room?

As management consultants working across both sectors, RGA have a profound interest in how effective cultural tourism is in practice. Our role is often to ensure that the hotelier, developer, theatre or festival can ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to attracting visitors and securing the leisure pound. Questions about the position of culture in an overall product mix, enhancing visitor experience, or managing negative impacts on vulnerable infrastructure are our bread and butter.

Pilgrims and visitors

The UK has many destinations and events comparable to Venice and its Lido. Think of Stratford upon Avon, London’s remarkable South Bank or the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). These destinations have a higher than normal attendance of ‘pilgrims’ – enthusiasts who are there first and foremost for the culture. EIF reports 36 million hits on its 2008 festival website, and, with 380,000 attenders producing a 22% increase in international traffic at Edinburgh Airport during the festival, impact on Scottish tourism is undeniable. Yet, in our experience, pilgrims usually represent around 10% of visitors to an area. The remaining 90% appreciate the cultural association and offer, but are also motivated by an attractive location, and good facilities and services. Think of the growth in interest in the Roslin Chapel resulting from ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or how Liverpool’s Capital of Culture is emphasising musical heritage. Barcelona and Gaudi; Dublin and Guinness; the majority of visitors will look at the overall quality of offer from these destinations before booking the flight. Almost all visitors will take their overall experience into account before attending again. This is where the tourism and culture professionals come in. A long-term approach to product development and investment can ensure that a cultural association – such as the Beatles or Robert Burns – generates long-term benefits for a destination. In turn, the improvement of the overall mix of the visitor experience will help inspire the pilgrims of the future. There are also short-term gains to be made: research suggests that people look for some connection between their visit and the merchandise they buy. Indeed, research into what visitors enjoy most should be a key element in developing distinctive merchandise and retail income in the culture and heritage sectors.

The integrated approach

Whether investing in the Capital of Culture or the Cultural Olympiad, the Government expects a return on its investment. With a plethora of agencies, such as VisitBritain, the arts councils, the Regional Development Agencies and the destination marketing companies (such as Marketing Birmingham), responsible for overseeing these initiatives, the importance of co-operation between tourism and culture is self-evident. In Scotland, the expectations around culture and tourism are particularly ambitious, with recent policy positioning these industries as key factors in securing future economic health. So how can these agencies be most effective in securing the desired outcomes? In addition to long-term planning, integrated planning between the sectors is crucial. It is understandable that the various agencies should concentrate their evaluation on the impact of investment on their core business aims. However, this is of little value if the core offer is sub-standard, or has not been planned sufficiently far ahead. A more effective approach would be for all agencies to take ownership of all aspects of the visitor experience and the cultural offer.

The impact of festivals

The growth in festivals and events has been a noticeable trend across the UK. British arts festivals now contribute an impressive £41.8m into the UK economy. The British Arts Festival Association was able to calculate this figure because measuring the economic impact of festivals is an established, sometimes embedded part of event delivery. But the link between local perceptions of an event and its future sustainability is also an interesting one. A local business or resident appears to be better disposed towards an event when it clearly has a positive impact on visitor perceptions of their area. Similarly, the UK’s culture flagships need both local and visitor attendances to keep producing the quality that acts as an international magnet. More needs to be understood about the relationship between a locale and its visitor attraction. Investors and producers need to know how to create positive impacts for local communities. Minimising environmental impact, increasing use of surrounding suppliers, and promotion of the area as a destination are all results with local appeal. An appreciation of cultural activity by residents and businesses eases access to the public pound, compensates for inconvenience caused by traffic or noise and contributes to the overall quality of the visitor experience. Providing opportunities for local artists is another highly visible aspect of an attraction. In an area of Scotland that has strong associations with Robert Burns, the obvious potential benefits of participating in the ‘Burns an’ a’ that Festival’ are, in the views of the local arts community, undermined by a lack of invitation to participate directly themselves.

When culture and tourism professionals work well together at local level, the seemingly eternal problems – lack of understanding of each other’s sectors, different planning timescales and disagreement on what represents success – disappear. How can we achieve this at national level? The principle of uniqueness or distinctiveness of a cultural offer needs to be better understood by the tourism specialists, particularly when they are primarily located outside the area. The managers of arts and cultural activities need to view themselves as part of the wider visitor experience. Agencies should be prepared to take a holistic approach to planning, delivery and impact evaluation.

Cultural tourists are not accidental tourists. Visitors recognise the cultural significance and associations of the place they intend to visit. There are real and sustainable financial benefits to be made for both cultural and tourism organisations in actively taking up the challenge of long-term and integrated planning, rooted in a programme to promote cross-sector understanding and communication.