Featured Contributor: Steven Thorne
Tarryn Landman / December 20, 2013
For this edition of our Featured Contributor series, I had a chance to hear from Steven Thorne. Steven is one of our most popular contributors, with the top three posts on our list of top 10 posts of EconomicDevelopment.org’s first year. Here’s what he had to say about his work in place-based cultural tourism.
Tell me how you first got started in cultural tourism? How long have you been in the field?
It was 15 years ago. I was managing the arts development office for the City of Kelowna, British Columbia. One day, the phone rang. It was the Canadian Tourism Commission, inviting me to serve on a committee to develop a national strategy for cultural tourism. The strategy was called Packaging the Potential. It was never implemented. The CTC wasn’t very serious about Canada as a cultural destination. Anyway, that was my start. Two years later, I was invited by Tourism British Columbia to lead a provincial demonstration project: “The Okanagan Cultural Corridor”, in BC’s wine-producing Okanagan Valley. It was 2000 – my first real go-round at destination planning for cultural tourism.
At that time, cultural tourism wasn’t – and still isn’t – well understood by Canadian DMOs. Canada is primarily an outdoor scenery and nature-based destination. That said, our nation has remarkable cultural tourism experiences: major museums and galleries, world-class historic sites, festivals of every description, heritage attractions, culinary experiences, unique communities and fascinating people. The opportunities abound, but are mostly unrealized.
Why do you think that Canada’s cultural tourism opportunities are mostly unrealized?
First, as an outdoor scenery and nature-based destination, Canada is a captive of its own success. We have a very hard time seeing past our lakes, our rivers, our forests, our mountains, our coastlines – and the myriad activities they offer. Second, when DMO’s do get involved with cultural tourism, they miss “sense of place”. They focus on the attractions. But sense of place is what cultural travelers most value. They want to discover what’s distinctive, authentic and memorable about a destination – which includes the destination’s attractions, of course – but also includes much more: the destination’s history and heritage, it narratives and stories, its landscape, its townscape, its people.
Maybe because I come from a background in culture and not tourism – and because I’ve always been a cultural traveler – this has always been self-evident to me.
Can you summarize what you mean by “sense of place?”
It’s what we immediately feel when a city, town, or region is different from another. Call it an atmosphere or an ambience. It’s an amalgam of the landscape, the townscape, and the community’s inhabitants, expressed through the sights, sounds, and “goings-on” that intrigue and captivate us. Paris isn’t Prague. Sarasota isn’t Santa Fe. Vancouver Island isn’t Prince Edward Island. Each has its own, unique, sense of place – and that sense of place is its most strategic asset.
Your place-based approach is what you’re known for. What surprises have you had along the way?
Because “place-based cultural tourism” is a phrase that I’ve coined, it doesn’t surprise me that I spend a lot of time explaining it!
What does surprise me is that, as an industry, tourism hasn’t embraced place-based thinking. Think about it. Richard Florida has said: “Place is becoming the central organizing unit of our economy and society.” And he’s right. Today, we have place-based economic development, place-based agriculture, place-based education, place-based fill-in-the-blank. What is tourism about? Place. Traveling to another place. Experiencing another place.
Along with Greg Baeker of Millier Dickinson Blais, I now offer a workshop for DMOs in destination planning for cultural tourism. It introduces place-based principles and planning practices. I’m pleased when participants say the workshop and its place-based approach is something of a revelation.
For our readers who perhaps aren’t familiar with place-based cultural tourism, how do you see this field relating to both cultural and broader economic development?
The demand for cultural tourism is enormous – but seldom recognized. I touch on this in one of my earlier posts. For example, more domestic trips by Canadians include historic sites, museums or galleries, or plays or concerts, than include spectator sports, or skiing, or golfing, or cycling, or canoeing or kayaking, or theme parks, or casino gambling.
The international demand is just as strong. According to Stats Canada, in 2012, there were 16 million overnight trips to Canada. Of these, 4.6 million included historic sites, 3.3 million included museums or art galleries, and 1.8 million included cultural events. The economic impact is in the billions. Globally, culture is arguably the single largest motivator of international leisure travel. For evidence, look no further than France. As a country, France is the single most popular tourism destination in the world – by far. And it’s the country that, more than any other, epitomizes culture.
When we understand that cultural tourism development is economic development – you can’t separate them – Canada’s arts, culture, and heritage sector will only benefit, as will the economic life of hundreds of communities.
What do you think will change about place-based cultural tourism in the next five to ten years?
Well, I’d like to see place-based cultural tourism supplant attractions-based cultural tourism. Attractions-based cultural tourism – which focuses on the destination’s cultural icons: its “marquee” museums and galleries, arts events and festivals, historic sites and heritage attractions –is the industry norm not only in Canada, but in the global marketplace. In my view, attractions-based cultural tourism is antiquated and obsolete. It’s a hold-over from the “Grand Tour” tradition of visiting Europe’s great cities to see their cultural treasures.
Today’s cultural travelers want more. Yes, they still want to see treasures. They want to see the icons. However, they’re seeking other rewards too. Tourism scholar Stephen Smith says that cultural travelers don’t just want to be at a place; they want to be in a place. That’s a key distinction.
Cultural travelers want to experience the destination as a whole. They want to taste the destination’s essence – it’s “cultural terroir”. They want to be stimulated and enriched – emotionally, intellectually, even spiritually. Plus, many cultural travelers are keenly interested in the tiny “cultural jewels” that lie off the beaten track. Place-based cultural tourism offers all these rewards.
What do you find most challenging about place-based cultural tourism? And most challenging?
The planning process is always challenging. First, you need to conduct an asset inventory – an inventory of all the destination’s cultural experiences, not just its icons. Next, you need to uncover the destination’s sense of place and determine how the cultural experiences can best be positioned and themed to communicate that sense of place. Finally, you need to identify narratives, images, and stories that shed light on the destination’s arts, culture, heritage, and people – something I call “place interpretation”. When it’s done well, place interpretation makes all the difference.
What’s most rewarding? In the end, it’s knowing you’ve developed an entirely new, place-based cultural destination – a “tapestry of place”, as I call it.
You often say, “the place is the product.”
Yes, that’s right. In place-based cultural tourism, the place itself is the tourism “product” – composed of its cultural experiences and themes. Place interpretation then pulls everything together into a cohesive whole.
Who or what has most influenced your work?
The fields of creative placemaking and cultural planning have both influenced my work. Individuals? I’d say Dan Shilling, the former Director of the Arizona Humanities Council. In 2007, he wrote a book called Civic Tourism: The Poetry and Politics of Place. It’s a must-read for any tourism planner or marketer who wants to escape what I call “the tyranny of attractions”. And there’s Rick Steves, on PBS. Watch “Rick Steves’ Europe”. He understands place-based cultural tourism. He curates the destination. It’s wonderful.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed a place-based strategy for Huntsville/Lake of Bays, in Muskoka cottage country, north of Toronto. I’m also finishing up another strategy for BC’s Columbia Valley.
Beyond these strategies, the project I’m always working on is getting tourism to move beyond business-as-usual.
If we want to grow cultural tourism – both in Canada and globally – we must become more sophisticated about the intersection of tourism, culture, and place. There is a growing literature that deals with this topic, but it’s not widely read within the tourism industry. That must change. And we must start paying serious attention to the most neglected area of tourism practice, at least, here in Canada: product development. As I wrote about in “How America’s cultural tourism industry has left Canada behind”, we lag painfully behind the United States when it comes to developing and marketing cultural tourism.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
I like spending time in nature. I especially love quiet, woodland environments. I also enjoy a good documentary and I’m a fan of public broadcasting. And then there’s my little black cat, “Kahlua”. It’s hard to do everything you want to do when you’re owned by a cat (~laughter ~).