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Featured Contributor: Steven Thorne

Tarryn Landman / December 20, 2013

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Featured Contributor: Steven Thorne

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?

Steven ThorneIt 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 ~).

18 responses to “Featured Contributor: Steven Thorne”

  1. William Hosley says:

    This is one of the best formulations of what place-based tourism and sense of place are about. We really need a conference on this – because most “tourism experts” don’t get it – that it’s not about endlessly milking the stars – but whole experiences in compelling places that know who they are, what they have and why they matter. Often this requires drilling down beneath the surfaces to sort of storylines and narratives and figure out what the place truly has to offer and then nurturing the development of the visitor experience and getting the word out. None of this will enable most places to generate the kind of volume you’ll find in NY, Paris and Disneyworld. But there are 100s of amazing places in the US and Canada with huge untapped potential to provide a superb visitor experience but that are not presently doing much business. To the degree they work at it, they cannot fail to succeed and in doing so sustain the cultural diversity that is our greatest treasure.

    • Thanks for your feedback, William.

      For most DMOs, “cultural tourism” means cherry-picking their cultural icons and launching an ad campaign. Sadly, cultural tourism of this kind – attractions-based cultural tourism – is the industry norm. Although it will return dividends, it won’t begin to realize a destination’s potential to lure cultural travelers, maximize spending, and extend length of stay. A place-based approach calls for a sophisticated and nuanced planning process that, as you rightly point out, requires “drilling down beneath the surface”. But the rewards are enormous – economically, culturally, and socially.

      We’re not talking only about tourism here – although tourism is the focus. We’re also talking about the wise stewardship of cultural resources, cultural development, creative placemaking, and, as you point out, enabling communities to “sustain the cultural diversity that is our greatest treasure.”

      Yes, we need a conference on this topic – and much more. We need professional development writ large – beginning with our industry’s leaders – leading to a much more holistic and enlightened understanding of how tourism, culture, and place intersect.

      Best,

      Steven Thorne

    • Steven_Thorne says:

      Thanks for your feedback, William.

      For most DMOs, “cultural tourism” means cherry-picking their cultural icons and launching an ad campaign. Or it may mean nothing more than inserting cultural icons within a generic leisure travel campaign. Sadly, cultural tourism of this kind – attractions-based cultural tourism – is the industry norm. Although it will return dividends, it won’t begin to realize a destination’s potential to lure cultural travelers, maximize spending, and extend length of stay.

      A place-based approach calls for a sophisticated and nuanced planning process that, as you rightly point out, requires “drilling down beneath the surface”. But the rewards are enormous – economically, culturally, and socially.

      We’re not talking only about tourism here – although tourism is the focus. We’re also talking about the wise stewardship of cultural resources, cultural development, creative placemaking, and, as you point out, enabling communities to “sustain the cultural diversity that is our greatest treasure.”

      Yes, we need a conference on this topic – and much more. We need professional development writ large – beginning with our industry’s leaders – leading to a much more holistic and enlightened understanding of how tourism, culture, and place intersect.

      Best,

      Steven Thorne

  2. William Hosley says:

    You are the first person I’ve ever read or learned about that is singing from the hymnal I’ve kept at my side for 30 years – expressing beautifully what I have only otherwise known Lucy Lippard to hint it. We should talk some time. There is a profound insight here that is largely lost on 99% of the folks paid to do tourism. From my experience, embracing the nexus between tourism, placemaking and cultural resource stewardship (and historic preservation) – mostly confuses folks that see the assignment more narrowly. I recently taught a course at Boston Architectural College on “Cultural Heritage, Tourism & Placemaking” the point of which was this interplay. Love Canada – have traveled widely there – from Tadoussac to Victoria – and incorporated a case study in cultural tourism about Quebec City on one of my class lectures (the Quebec part starts about 23 mins in) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ejcg1ZLCcRE. Would love to chat some time. Am so delighted to discover you – as a little gift at the end of the year – hosley.terrafirma@gmail.com

  3. Lizzeth Montejano says:

    Finally someone understands that not every traveler is interested in the
    same “homogenized” destinations. As an avid traveler, I also enjoy to
    travel to places that don’t look the same, destinations which are
    distinctive. Steven was able to capture the right words to describe
    placed-based cultural tourism.

    I also find the breakdown of the statistics for the cultural traveler
    very informative. It’s always hard to find these statistics for the
    United States when it comes to domestic travelers.

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  5. Jonathon Day says:

    Steven is doing some great work in Heritage Tourism. So many places are too busy comparing themselves with their competitors that they lose sight of their own identity. Steven’s work is the antidote to that problem.

  6. Teri Souter says:

    Travellers seek rewards…a feeling of experiencing a place by being immersed “in” it, not “at” it…communication of unique and authentic environment, character, heritage, art and culture as a “central organizing unit of our economy and society”, in both medium and message will be a challenge… and a key to unlock place-based tourism and their rewards for travellers and destinations alike.

  7. Heather O'Hagan says:

    Steven, I totally agree with what you have stated here. As a tourist, I am most attracted to Rick-Steves-style experiences when I travel. I want to feel “real” neighbourhoods, meet local people and get a sense of place. Perhaps Canadian tourism associations could look more closely at what the Business Improvement Associations are doing. In Vancouver (where I live), for example, both the Mount Pleasant and Commercial Drive B.I.A.s tout the glories of their vibrant neighbourhoods. These include not just eating and shopping, but street and art festivals, heritage attractions, historical walks, and just hanging out with real people in great cafes and coffee shops. They understand what sets them apart from “touristy” areas like Gastown and Robson Street – it’s their “place-based” culture.

    • Steven_Thorne says:

      Hi Heather,

      Thank you for this astute observation.

      In many jurisdictions, BIA’s are “closer” to the neighbourhood culture than DMOs because the local, street-level “scene” is the BIA’s natural constituency – composed, as you point out, of historical walks, community festivals, boutique shopping, the local food scene, and “the hood’s” various heritage experiences. Too often, these jewels are overlooked by larger DMOs that focus on marquee attractions and cultural icons, missing the grass-roots culture. If all politics is local, so is all culture!

      Best,

      Steven

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  9. david aboulkheir says:

    Very nice article Steven, I can’t help thinking of what has been doing the city Nantes, France, for several years, in that field. A “Journey to Nantes” (awarded at the Place Marketing Forum 2013) is a global cultural initiative that aims to turn the whole city of Nantes into a cultural landmark, inviting residents and visitors, to discover and experience streets, urban heritage, art and cultural features. It works well, economic and tourism results are highly successful (€ 52.3 million direct impact on the mainland and more than 650,000 visitors in 2013), but the event also created a true symbol showcasing the dynamic image of the regional area (high-impact media), and directly contributing to the enrichment of the city identity. Few cities of this size in the world can claim such a performance.

  10. Stephen Smith says:

    A special challenge for those of us who seek to promote place-based cultural tourism is not just the lack of appreciation for the economic impacts of cultural tourism. Many tourism marketers and product developers don’t even adequately understand the meaning of culture in the context of their destination. I had a conversation with a researcher from the Newfoundland and Labrador Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Recreation who, in response to a query about promoting cultural tourism in that province, noted that Newfoundland and Labrador lacked the museums, orchestras, and galleries that would draw tourists. She could not understand that the people themselves, and the communities, cuisine, folk art and music, festivals, and built landscape or that beautiful province were also cultural assets.

    • Steven_Thorne says:

      Stephen –

      You have put your finger on a major impediment to cultural tourism in Canada: the narrow perception of culture as “marquee arts and heritage institutions” – full stop.

      Curiously, I have also encountered the reverse end of the perceptual spectrum, so to speak. It involves a conversation with a former executive for Tourism Victoria. Victoria is tailor-made for a segmented cultural tourism campaign, but it has never launched one. When I inquired why, I was given two explanations.

      First, I was told that ALL of Victoria’s tourism experiences are, in one way or another “cultural”. Thus, because “culture is everywhere”, culture is “inherent to Victoria’s tourism brand.” Second, I was told that Victoria’s cultural experiences could not compete head-to-head with Vancouver’s or Seattle’s. Thus, a segmented cultural tourism campaign would not succeed.

      I cannot tell you which of these two explanations is more problematic: the explanation that concedes culturally oriented travel to Vancouver and Seattle (missing Victoria’s unique sense of place as the foundation for a cultural campaign), or the explanation that characterizes every tourism experience in Victoria as inherently “cultural”.

      The explanation that characterizes every tourism experience in Victoria as inherently cultural is perhaps the more dangerous. If every tourism experience is a cultural tourism experience, then all we need do is re-brand Canada as a cultural destination and re-attribute all tourism spending in Canada as spending on cultural tourism. Voila! Canada has joined the ranks of the world’s premier cultural destinations.

      Best,

      Steven Thorne

  11. Tim Merriman says:

    Great article – As interpretive planners, we have been amazed that tourism communities have not been more invested in planning the thematic experience that emerges from their authentic culture and place. We wrote, Put the HEART Back in your Community as an interpretive planning approach for communities. This whole movement has to be where quality community experiences are headed. Some communities accidentally evolve this direction but it’s faster and more high quality if you plan it. We also admire Dan Shilling’s work with Civic Tourism, which encourages investment in the community product, “the experience,” and not just advertising, which sometimes attracts people to an inferior or inauthentic experience. And great places with a strong sense of place can lose it to the generification of franchise businesses that make every shopping area look just like it does everywhere else. Protect your authentic stories and share them.

    • Steven_Thorne says:

      Hi Tim –

      Thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

      I am curious re: the extent to which your book “Put the HEART Back in Your Community”, is being read in tourism education programs. Have you any sense of this?

      Based on my experience, the current DMO leadership in Canada and the U.S. is not attuned – and in many cases, entirely disinterested – in what we are talking about. There are exceptions, yes, but they are few and far between, certainly here in Canada. Resonance with my own work exists largely among tourism academics, preservationists, cultural planners, and selected tourism consultants who “get” sense of place.

      I am increasingly persuaded that the future of what we espouse lies with the next generation of tourism industry leaders – provided they are exposed to the thinking and writing of visionaries such as you and Lisa Brochu, Dan Shilling, Michael Haywood and Stephen Smith (both here in Canada), Cheryl Hargrove, and others who understand the “power of place” in building and sustaining distinctive, authentic, and memorable tourism destinations (which, of course, are also the most livable communities).

      Best,

      Steven Thorne

  12. Dan Shilling says:

    Hi Steven,
    Great article and thanks for the book plug! Interestingly, I gave a talk the other night in Utah and sold the last batch of books. It’s great to see that the interest in what you’re talking about continues to spread. I’m thinking of a 2nd edition — have learned so much traveling the country since the civic tourism conference in Prescott (2006). Enjoyed the discussion here, keep it up! Dan

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