How America’s cultural tourism industry has left Canada behind
Steven Thorne / December 3, 2012
Several years ago, I was on the phone with Louise Stevens. Louise is an arts consultant in the United States, who, along with her husband John, runs the Montana-based firm ArtsMarket, Inc.
As it happens, Louise and John travel frequently in Canada. As Louise and I chatted about their Canadian travels, the subject of cultural tourism arose. Louise seemed perplexed. There was something about Canada she couldn’t understand. She paused, took a breath, and leaned into the question: Why don’t you Canadians market your culture?
Louise was not suggesting that Canada is silent about its cultural tourism experiences. From Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum to Ottawa’s National Art Gallery, from Toronto’s Luminato Festival to Cape Breton’s Fortress Louisburg, Canada’s cultural tourism operators are fully engaged in attracting international visitors and Canadian residents – and they do so in a variety of ways, including partnering with destination marketing organizations (DMOs).
Instead, what Louise was pointing at is how few Canadian cities, towns, and regions market their culture with segmented campaigns that target cultural travelers.
Segmented campaigns that target cultural travelers are common in the U.S. From the largest state – Texas – with its statewide Texas Heritage Trails Program to the District of Columbia’s Cultural Tourism DC, from North Carolina’s Arts Trails to Montana’s Cultural Treasures, dozens of states have placed segmented campaigns – some statewide, some regional – in the cultural tourism marketplace.
Elsewhere, civic DMOs such as Atlanta and Los Angeles house their city’s cultural offerings on the DMO’s own website, but target cultural travelers with content and a cultural sensibility that – with the exception of Stratford, Ontario, and to a lesser extent, Vancouver and Ottawa – is simply not found in Canada’s tourism marketplace.
The U.S. focus on cultural tourism isn’t an accident. It’s a strategic direction informed by research – research I’ve referenced in my previous posts – that demonstrates the growing North American and global appetite for cultural tourism. But research alone isn’t driving cultural tourism in the U.S. Equally, an infrastructure of government agencies at the federal and state level, along with cultural non-profits and state and civic DMOs, is committed to enabling and developing America’s cultural tourism industry.
Yes, industry. Not a “niche market”. An industry. And that industry has an infrastructure.
It begins with Partners in Tourism: Culture and Commerce, formed in the aftermath of the 1995 White House Conference on Travel and Tourism, convened by President Clinton. A self-described, “coalition of cultural service organizations, the travel industry, and federal agencies that provides a forum for collaborative research, education, promotion and advocacy with the common goal of advancing the role of culture and heritage in the travel and tourism industry”, the 29 Partners include, at the federal level, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and, among others, the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation.
Non-governmental Partners include, among others, the American Association of Museums, Americans for the Arts, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the U.S. Travel Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In Canada, nothing remotely resembles Partners in Tourism: Culture and Commerce. Among its activities, the Partners, working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, hosts CulturalHeritageTourism.org, whose resources help communities to capitalize on cultural tourism.
With financial support from American Express, the Partners also publish Cultural Heritage Tourism News, which documents success stories and best practices from across the U.S. Another Partners’ initiative, the Cultural Heritage Tourism Exchange (CHTE), is a two-day gathering in Washington, DC, to identify ways to enhance and grow America’s cultural tourism industry. At the CHTE’s 2012 gathering, the Partners and Brand USA discussed how to serve Brand USA’s designation of culture as one of America’s “four pillars” for attracting more international visitors.
Inspired by the Partners’ work, a variety of states have published print manuals or online toolkits to further develop cultural tourism within their own borders. These include the Texas Heritage Tourism Guidebook, Arizona’s Cultural Heritage Tourism: Practical Applications, Vermont’s Cultural Heritage Tourism Toolkit, and Georgia’s Heritage Tourism Handbook.
In addition, many U.S. states administer their own grant or development programs that are specific to cultural tourism. Most recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced New York’s “Path Through History” – a $1 million dollar program designed, in his words, “to highlight the rich history that exists in New York State by showcasing more than two hundred of our most significant sites and historic milestones.”
Along with state programs, numerous federal initiatives help to develop cultural tourism. One noteworthy initiative, the heritage tourism program of Preserve America, established in 2005 and administered by the National Parks Service, has awarded more than $17 million in grants to almost 260 projects. Meanwhile, the larger, sister program to Preserve America, Save America’s Treasures, until its demise in the Obama administration’s 2012 budget cuts, had invested $220 million in the preservation of about 900 historic structures – many of which were directly linked to cultural tourism initiatives.
With the development of America’s cultural tourism industry, a national association of cultural tourism professionals was born: The Cultural & Heritage Tourism Alliance (CHTA). Since 2002, the CHTA has provided professional development, networking and mentorship, along with the opportunity to experience and learn from cultural tourism successes in the different cities that host the CHTA’s annual conference.
Another key resource for America’s cultural tourism industry is the Heritage Tourism Program of the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation. Its fee-for-service Cultural Heritage Tourism Assessments and Cultural Heritage Tourism Workshops assist communities, tourism agencies, and planning authorities in cultural tourism development, management, and marketing. To date, more than 50 clients have benefited from the National Trust’s expertise.
Elsewhere, A Position Paper on Cultural Heritage Tourism in the United States, provides the intellectual underpinnings for America’s ongoing development work in cultural tourism. Prepared for the 2005 U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Summit by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Position Paper outlines the state of the industry and articulates cultural tourism’s core principles and challenges as it aspires to the next level of industry achievement. Its companion document, U.S. Cultural and Heritage Tourism Summit Declaration of Principles and Action, summarizes the Position Paper’s recommendations.
Alright. Let’s pause. Let’s take a breath. And then, let’s ask the obvious: Why is Canada so far behind the U.S.? Why doesn’t Canada have a cultural tourism industry?
Or, to reiterate the question from the perspective of Louise Stevens – and millions of other would-be cultural tourists to Canada – Why don’t you Canadians market your culture?
The answer isn’t complicated.
Since its inception, our tourism industry has built its success on Canada’s outdoor scenery and nature-based experiences. As a result, we are now captives of our own success – and that success is declining precipitously. Based on international arrivals, Canada’s global ranking as a tourism destination has tumbled from 7th place in 2002 to 18th place today.
At the same time, despite the fact that culture is arguably the leading motivator of international leisure travel, most of Canada’s tourism industry leaders have an understanding of cultural tourism that is, well, elementary.
One former executive at the Canadian Tourism Commission – an ardent supporter of cultural tourism who shall remain nameless – perhaps said it best:
“I wonder if the stubbornness to move ourselves off the path of preconceived righteousness is somehow ingrained in our Canadian psyche. Whether it’s a Nortel or a RIM or a Canadian Airlines or a Canadian Tourism Commission, ploughing ahead, oblivious to the currents of change, on a single track. It seems to be how we’re predisposed.”