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Analysing Heritage Tourism

These postings first appeared in the blog pages on this web site at various dates. They read in order from the top downwards.

Image: History tourism - examples

Historic Levels of Attractiveness

Students who study tourism management are unlikely to have much knowledge of history, at least on average. As it happens many of them have a remarkably poor sense of geography, which is even more worrying. The point about historical knowledge, however, is important also but for rather subtle reasons which are worth exploring in a few postings. We can state the obvious one first, that visiting museums, historic houses and places is enormously important in terms of visitor numbers, and then look at some of the subtleties.

In the period July 2005 – October 2006 the Department of Media, Culture and Sport ran a survey which obtained detailed results from over 28,000 interviews with people over the age of 16. This showed that 70% of the respondents had deliberately chosen to visit a historic environment in the year previous to them being questioned. 42% had visited a museum or gallery. Under the heading ‘historic environment’ came, in order of importance, historic towns (52%), historic parks or gardens (38%), monuments such as castles or ruins (37%), historic buildings open to the public (approx 36%), historical places of worship (27%), places connected with industrial history (19%), archaeological sites (16%) and places connected with sports history (4%).

Meanwhile, the National Trust reports, in its 2009 Annual Report, that it has some 3.6 million members. The 2009 English Heritage report says its membership scheme has 687,000 people enrolled (there are also large numbers of corporate members but it is the individuals who are important here). Historic attractions can have very high visitor numbers. The Guardian newspaper stated that in 2008 the British Museum had almost 6 million visitors, Tate Modern 4.8 million, the Tower of London 2.1 million and St Paul’s Cathedral 1.6 million. Not all had shown increases – the Victoria and Albert Museum declined by 15% after higher numbers to popular exhibitions in the previous year. And, of course, small ‘heritage’ attractions – local museums, historic houses, churches etc – garnered much smaller numbers: Holy Trinity Church, York, took in 38,000 – but even this was 10% up on the previous year – and the Martyr’s School, Glasgow, only 2,484 – even so, 50% more than in 2007.

Historic places represent big business and very popular appeal.

Image: Tourism trends by century

History As Trend Analysis

Having seen (in the previous posting) how popular in the market history is – or at least, let’s say, heritage tourism – it’s obvious that anyone in tourism marketing and development needs to know something about history. However, you could say that people like visiting historic places because those places have a different ‘flavour’ and they find that interesting, but communicating the history can be left to the guides at the particular place. There is a lot of truth in that – if you are an amateur manager.

A professional in this job would have several reasons for wanting to know the history themselves and not leave it to someone else. They would want to know just what it was about the history that was attracting people. Was it the sense of place and time to be found in the surroundings? – the kind of buildings and environment, such as would be found in a medieval town or an industrial community, for example. They would demand to know how well the guides and other forms of interpretation were performing in communicating the historic story. They would want to be a step ahead of the visitors in knowing what period of history was gaining in popularity, possibly because of the influence of the latest novels, film or TV series. Alongside that, what kind of history was catching the public imagination? Once upon a time it was about kings and queens and national heroes. Today it is often the story of ordinary people, their ways of life and events in those lives. Any marketing director or development officer who does not keep up with this kind of knowledge is risking being taken for a ride – and I don’t mean a quality coach tour but a brief hurtle through a theme park concoction of the past.

There is another important reason for having an interest in what has gone and that is because the marketing manager needs to think about the future. Confusing? The reason for looking back in order to plan for the future is to see what the trends have been. In a broader sense it is a matter of finding out how we got to where we are in the tourism industry today. What were the reasons, the causes of change and the influences on the choices that people have been making? We talk of Push and Pull Factors, of innovations and failures. How we make sense of the airline industry and the changes it is going through depends on looking back over aviation activity since the late 1940s – at least. What will be the outcome of the present situation for the major airlines including the ‘flag carriers’ like BA, Lufthansa, Qantas or Aeroflot? Many factors come in to play, not the least of these the growth of low-cost or ‘no frills’ airlines. To understand why these have been successful at the expense of the big companies it’s necessary to read up on the likes of Southwest Airlines, Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, easyJet and Ryanair. In doing so you’re studying history.

That exercise would be looking at relatively short-span history. Important, broad, lessons come from longer spans such as the three centuries in the graphic above. It’s a great simplification of course, to relate the Grand Tour to the eighteenth century, countryside touring to the nineteenth and overseas beach resort tourism to the twentieth. But the point being made is that the changing face of tourism can only be properly seen by examining causes and effects. So the Grand Tour largely educated the sons of wealthy landowners who travelled by horse-drawn carriages around to destinations such as Rome. In the nineteenth century railways became available with cheap transport to take people out of the new industrial cities with their dirt and disease to places like the Lake District. In the twentieth century aircraft became dominant for the longer journeys that the up-market customer was demanding, again with elements of escapism from a mainly urban lifestyle that was often stressful. Yes, it was much more complex than that, but this pattern, crude though it might be, is a starting point for comprehending not only where tourism seems to be going, and why, but what exactly it is all about.

And discovering the detail is what makes the study of history such fun.

Image: Variations in historic location: Paris

Variations in Historic Location: Paris


It should be straightforward to say that the view along the Seine towards Notre Dame is one of a historic location. The cathedral, bridge and other buildings are all old: some very old. The same goes for the gallery in the Louvre Museum with its glass cases – clearly a historic room with historic artefacts. Anyone visiting the Louvre or Notre Dame has some kind of interest in things historic. What about the sculptures of men holding clocks in front of their faces? Modern art. Not historic – not yet. The building, however, was the Louvre and we have just d¬¬¬escribed it as attracting visitors because it is historic. Are the modern art figures? The stumbling block here is the definition of ‘historic’. At one time that would usually mean from the time of the Romans or earlier. In the 1950s it often meant pre-Victorian, although serious historians would talk about the much more recent past using that term. On the other hand, buildings requiring protection from redevelopment were generally more than a century old at the time. As interest and knowledge grew about history – heritage, preservation and conservation – during the sixties, so did the desire to save ever more recent buildings – St Pancras Station (1868), the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea (1935), Centre Point, London (1966), for example. So here is a question: when does ‘history’ come into play as opposed to the idea of ‘the present’? Yesterday? A minute ago? Ten years ago? That photo of the clock-carrying figures was taken in 2007, so surely it is historic?

The same consideration must be given of the Pompidou Centre (1977) in the left-hand photo. It was, and still is, decidedly modern. But it is over thirty years old..... so – historic?

Now look at the cafe in the Left Bank area of Paris. A modern cafe in architecture and decor, though part of a much older building. Nowhere special, perhaps? Try telling that to the owner.... and since my wife and I breakfasted there every day for almost a week in 2007 it is pretty special to us. It’s part of our personal history. Does a place, building or artefact have to be outstanding, famous, to be described as historic? No ... except, of course, to the owner or to us it is outstanding and famous – it’s a matter of relationship to people. Like beauty, history is in the eye of the beholder.

What about a field of pumpkins? Growing in 2007, objects of the present in that year. Not historic. Except that they were growing in the restored ‘Hameau de la Reine’ at Versailles, the playscape village built for Queen Marie Antoinette. There she could pretend to be a countrywoman, milking cows, harvesting pumpkins, while safely sealed off from the reality of rural poverty in mid-eighteenth century France. So those pumpkins in the picture are part of something – historic.

Image: History in a local community

Our History, Our Heritage

For some history enthusiasts it might be an old story. The kind of kings and queens history taught immediately post-war was like a kind of standard fiction that everybody read but which offered few points of personal contact. I got as far as the Tudors but then, under the rules of the fifties, had to take physics because I was fractionally better at it. So the talk of friends about The Balkan Question and the Corn Law Question passed me by. Thank goodness for geography that I could relate to all around.

It was geography that opened up history for me, in fact. In my home town, a small Staffordshire market-with-silkmills town called Leek, when I looked at geography I inevitably saw history. A good friend was in to medieval church history because of interesting ruins nearby. My place was not ruins, though. It was a living, rattling, sort of place full of people, the sight of smoky chimneys and the smells of oily machinery. It was here that the family worked, mostly in the mills, with one or two in white-collar jobs. It was easy to move from a childhood of train sets and Meccano construction kits to the discovery of mill engines, lorries loaded with goods for the shops and an awakening realisation that textile factories and terraced housing had been woven together according to some historical pattern.

I don't know exactly what it was that opened up an interest in industrial archaeology. I don't think it was the silk mills as such or the James Brindley Water Mill in the town - that was not restored in 1961 or 1962 which was roughly the time I'm remembering. It might have been knowledge of some of the sites in Stoke-on-Trent just a few miles away: potteries, canals, a steel works. Or a book on the industrial revolution from the local library. Or it might have been a further education tutor I happened to know who had his own interest in the subject. Whichever it was I began to read more and visit some of the places by bus or with a friend who had a car (sadly prone to frequent breakdowns). It was the geography that caught my imagination first, so I'm sure there was a strong transport-pattern element. Also, the fascination of machinery like the steam engine that used to drive all the silk-making equipment in the mill where members of my family worked. There must have been some sort of art or sculptural-appreciation side to this - wheels turning, connection-rods sliding to and fro, steam hissing in small clouds. Perhaps there was the boy-thing about power, in the sense of something which made movement and processes possible. Engineering was a way of solving problems and making things work - very utilitarian but often in a visually attractive or intriguing kind of way.

If you had said I was becoming caught by the history bug you would have been right, as I read up on the people who made the industrial revolution and the people who were drawn in to the new worlds that it offered. Especially amongst my family and their earlier generations, who moved in the area from farm to smithy to millwrighting in three generations.

If you had come up with the word 'heritage' I would have thought it an idea that seemed a bit airy-fairy.

At least then.

Image: School field visit brochures

Touchy Feely History

I thought we had come a long way in the seventeen years I have been in higher education when I think that in 1962 we still used chalk on blackboards and now computerised data projection, DVDs, animated lecture slides and colour-printed handouts. In ’92 overhead projectors were the state of the art, and students doing presentations used the advanced technique of uncovering bullet points one-by-one, slipping a sheet of paper away from the text as they talked.

In 1962 I began teaching full time in a secondary school (before university: you can’t do that now) using chalk on those dreadful roller-blind “blackboards”. It was possible to borrow a film from someone like Guild Sound and Vision (free, because they were made by sponsoring companies) and that was it. You might find a slide projector in schools but there were few slides. My own school had got an epidiascope with glass lantern slides and a way of clamping a printed picture underneath so that a system of bright lights and lenses shone the image on a screen. There was an ink duplicator, messy and almost limited to reproducing typewriter text only.

Where I was teaching there was a spirit duplicating system. It was far more primitive than the ink duplicator, but, miracle of miracles, it could print in seven colours – simultaneously! A paper master sheet had to be drawn on, colour by colour, using tinted carbon-copy sheets to make the colour original. Then it was pressed onto a gelatine block, with enough of the colours transferring to enable the printing of about 25 copies on paper pressed one after the other onto the block, by hand, until the colour ran out. At least, that’s how a I remember it, and I see that the system is still encouraged as a very low-cost, low-tech facility in less developed countries.

Which is all by way of introducing the illustrations above. They were produced by hand and typewriter as reading material for a school visit to places in North Staffordshire by some of the children I was teaching. It was 1964. I see from a name on the nine foolscap pages (13” x 8” – none of that A4 business) that the pictures were drawn by one of the pupils. Step forward Robert Wood, wherever you are now, 45 years later. Take a bow with thanks for helping out. These were mainly history notes and pictures about the past at our end of the County.

The only out of school activities then were sports events and an occasional visit to another school for some kind of stage entertainment. History was taught by chalk and talk and a few standard posters from a distant schools supplier. A more resourceful teacher might take some kind of objects into class in order to illustrate a point. That would be all. So one day Bernard Gilhooley, the history department head, and myself took a busload of the children to a nearby town and then into the city of Stoke-on-Trent to show them mills, canals, potbanks and different kinds of housing. They loved it. History in the classroom, however well described, is still an abstract concept. Out in the actual world all five senses can come into play – sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste (try the oatcakes sold outside the pottery factory). It’s a three-dimensional stage set on which life is acted out for real. It’s an interactive experience where questions can be asked of the people you meet. It’s a powerful social experience too – full of the encounters with the people out there, but also between those making the journey, sharing reactions, thoughts and opinions. Maybe the most memorable benefit is the fun which sweetens the learning situation and gives more confidence to the youngsters discovering their world that they can make sense of it by getting out into it. Books are still needed. Teachers are still needed, stood at the front in the classroom – but a bit of one-day tourism adds a whole spectrum of educational benefits. Whether it’s history and geography, social studies or biology doesn’t really matter. Whatever the heritage is, getting out there to examine and question it is what makes it possible to live with it.

Image: Jacquard loom displays

Hi-Tech History

There are lots of reasons for being fascinated by history. Old-style teaching was once about kings, queens and ‘national heroes’ and new-style is often about the Horrible Histories approach, neither of which are appealing to me. The first is, at least for recent monarchs, just public relations for remote royalty. The latter is for teenagers who like squirmy stories.

My kind is the stuff I can relate to followed up by the bits that help me make sense of the first lot. So being from a textile family background, for example, and at the same time a frequent user of computers, the machinery in the Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds strikes a chord. In 1801 a French inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard, devised a weaving machine – a loom – which could produce complex designs. Punched cards were used to control how the warp and weft threads appeared in a cloth. This enabled the different colours of the front-to-back and the left-to-right threads to show in different combinations. Jacquard’s invention helped expand both the textile industry and the associated fashion trade. A hundred years later the firm which became IBM was able to speed up the United States’ census analysis by using punched cards – not for control but to represent different results which could then be sorted mechanically. Punched cards were later used in computers to feed instructions and data in to processing units – controlling the process. My first job after university was in a computer centre where thousands of such cards were used for engineering and other tasks.

So history, the story of human activity since the year dot, covers lots of interesting subjects. That is why millions of tourists enjoy, at one level or another, historic places. And for the tourism manager anxious to understand how this huge sector of the industry works, finding a path into the treasure house of history is the way to succeed.

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