Steven Thorne on Cultural Heritage & Tourism, from
EconomicDevelopment.org – Interview with Terryn Landman,
Dec. 20, 2013
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. 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”. It was
2000 – my first real go-round at destination planning for
At that time, cultural tourism was – and still is – not well
understood by Canadian DMOs (Destination Management Orgs).
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. The opportunities abound, but are mostly
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
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
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
The demand for cultural tourism is enormous. 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,
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 is the industry norm ….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. And they want to enjoy their travels. But 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 what lies 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 rewarding?
The planning process is always challenging. First, you need to
uncover a destination’s sense of place and determine how the
destination’s cultural experiences can best be positioned and
themed to communicate that sense of place. Then, you need to
identify narratives 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. I’m also
finishing up another strategy for BC’s Columbia Valley.