Place-based cultural tourism: a new planning paradigm

We’re very pleased to post this Guest Post by Steven Thorne who is one of our fellow “place proponents” as listed in the previous article, Place Is Back…” . The original post was published in Canada’s  Economic Development News & Insight. Thank you Steven. 

For the past decade, my work has focused on destination planning for cultural tourism. Using principles and practices of cultural planning pioneered by my friend and colleague Greg Baeker of  Millier Dickinson Blais, combined with an inclusive, holistic framework for identifying a community’s cultural tourism assets, I’ve attempted to move communities beyond inserting their cultural icons – their flagship museums and galleries, arts events and festivals, historic sites and heritage attractions – into their leisure travel campaigns and calling the result, “cultural tourism”.

We know the market for cultural tourism is enormous. It’s documented in the new Canadian publication, Cultural & Heritage Tourism: A Handbook for Community Champions, to which I was pleased to contribute and serve as an editorial advisor. Elsewhere, the 2009 Cultural & Heritage Traveler Study, documents that 14 percent of all U.S. domestic leisure travelers are “Passionate Cultural Travelers” who actively seek out cultural tourism experiences. Total trip spending by these “Passionates” is estimated at $43 billion per year. Small wonder that, a decade ago, the Travel Industry Association of America’s Bill Norman observed, “The sheer volume of travelers interested in arts and heritage as well as their spending habits, their travel patterns and demographics leaves no doubt that history and culture are now a significant part of the U.S. travel experience.”

The challenge for communities wanting to capitalize on cultural tourism is simple: the current planning paradigm is obsolete. Effective tourism marketing is marketing by segment. To this end, destination marketing organizations cannot rely on generic leisure travel campaigns to reach cultural travelers. Cultural travelers must be targeted using purpose-built marketing platforms and targeted cultural campaigns.

But before we take a cultural tourism product to market, we first need to engage in a much more sophisticated process of identifying a community’s cultural tourism asset base, uncovering its cultural identity, and crafting a visitor experience that will capitalize on any community’s most strategic asset: its sense of place.

Source: Whistler Centre for Sustainability

Whistler, BC, recognizes this fact. In the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympics, North America’s pre-eminent ski destination realized it could not build the future of its tourism industry around skiing and snowboarding alone. Seeing the potential of cultural tourism to diversify its tourism offering, yet understanding it could not compete culturally with Vancouver on Vancouver’s terms, Whistler contracted my firm to develop Canada’s first place-based cultural tourism strategy, entitled A Tapestry of Place.

I call my approach, “place-based cultural tourism”, because it eschews the notion that cultural attractions are the heart of the visitor experience. Research tells us otherwise: Cultural travelers want to explore what makes a destination distinctive, authentic, and memorable. They want to experience the essence of the destination – its “cultural terroir”. They want to experience “place”. Through experiencing “place”, they are enriched – intellectually and emotionally. Of course, attractions are more than essential; they are critical. That said, attractions are expressions of a destination’s culture; they are not its embodiment.

It’s ironic. Richard Florida has opined that, “Place is becoming the central organizing unit of our economy and society”. And yet, while we see Florida’s understanding reflected in the emerging fields of place-based agriculture, place-based urban planning, place-based economic development and a host of others fields, tourism is oddly “behind the curve” on the application of place-based thinking to destination planning. It’s a head-scratcher – more so given that tourism’s product is place, or that, at the very least, tourism experiences are located in a particular place.

In North America, perhaps the best example of a place-based approach to cultural tourism is found in Stratford, Ontario – home to the internationally renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Stratford Helps Visitors Meet Locals

Under the inspired leadership of Eugene Zakreski, the Executive Director of the Stratford Tourism Alliance, Stratford’s marketing campaign – along with its many initiatives in product development – is anchored in place-based thinking. Rather than focusing on the Shakespeare Festival as Stratford’s primary draw, Zakreski has positioned the Festival as the “jewel in the crown” of a destination brimming with other human heritage, arts, culinary, agritourism, and natural history experiences. At the same time, Zakreski uses Stratford’s history and heritage, its narratives and stories, its landscape, its townscape and people to “frame” the cultural experiences that are encountered on the ground. Where yesteryear’s Stratford was the Festival – full stop – the allure of today’s Stratford is all about, “what makes Stratford Stratford”.

The result? Because Stratford’s sense of place is front-and-centre, business has never been better. To quote Zakreski, “The results of our efforts have been significant, with triple-digit growth in visitors to our various websites over the past few years, double-digit growth to Stratford in the fall, winter and spring seasons, and noticeably younger adult couples enjoying the Stratford Experience.”


Steven Thorne is a specialist in “place-based cultural tourism” – a phrase that Steven coined. He helps cities, towns, and regions to realize their potential for cultural tourism by using his company’s holistic, place-based planning approach. The approach weaves together heritage, arts, culinary, agritourism, and natural history experiences to form a “cultural tapestry” that reveals a destination’s unique cultural character and sense of place.

In Steven’s words, “For cultural travelers, the visitor experience is about much more than a destination’s cultural ‘attractions’. It’s about discovering what makes a city, town, or region distinctive, authentic, and memorable. It’s about the experience of ‘place’. Simply put, ‘the place is the product.'” Steven’s clients have included Tourism BC, Parks Canada, Tourism PEI, and cities, towns, and institutions from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Committed to cultural tourism education as well as its practice, Steven teaches the course, “Cultural Tourism: Realizing the Opportunity”, offered through the Cultural Resource Management Program at the University of Victoria. He is also a regular guest lecturer in the Graduate Program in Tourism Policy and Planning at the University of Waterloo. Steven can be reached at:

Conscious Travel Addendum
Here’s a link to another relevant and content-rich post by Steven Thorne comparing Canada’s approach to marketing culture to visitors to that applied by their American neighbours. The post is rich with references that could inform global readers. 

One Response to “Place-based cultural tourism: a new planning paradigm”

  1. Steven, All communities can, in fact, need to, develop their tourism on a solid place-related platform, which should not be divorced or separated from culture. In other words, all tourism benefits from being developed on, what I would call, a culturally-based place tourism. The inherent challenges in doing so, however, stem from first, the competing and yet inter-connected agendas of urban designers, architects, civic boosters, enviros, politicos, city staffers, preservationists, community activists, developers and everyday folk. Placemaking implies a promise and a commitment to cultivating environments that nurture human needs in all their diversity – tourism being but one facet. Hence the need for community engagement, planning and design, implementation and advocacy, and coding that embraces context and fosters character in line with community goals.

    The second challenge, and the one that actually affects the first, is the belief that “there is no need to dwell on the past; what matters is the future.” Industry and community leaders and shapers with no patience for history are missing a vital truth: A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have in shaping community futures. A shared history and appreciation for a community’s culture is a large part of what binds individuals into a community and imbues it with distinct advantage. As the historian and philosopher, David Carr, said “The present gets its sense from the background of comparable events to which it belongs…Discovering or re-discovering the story, picking up the thread, reminding ourselves where we stand, where we have been and where we are going – these are important for groups as for individuals.” They help paint pictures and are a rich source of stories that can motivate people to embrace change, develop tourism, and attract visitors.

    Once communities recognize the basic truth about how history has shaped their culture, the importance of learning lessons from the past become clear. Although the context of the present is radically different from what it was many years ago, communities can draw lessons from understanding how they were shaped and influenced, how previous generations confronted challenges and opportunities, and how they transformed cultures. As the historian Carl Becker said “The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future.” Even when no clear picture of the future can be discerned from the past, leaders can use their histories to explain how their community arrived at a critical need for change (probably through no fault of their own) and how history can put adversity into context. In other words, history compels us to think about the long-term – a factor frequently ignored in community development.

    Placemaking requires looking back in order to plan forward. While it is common to ask “what is the problem and how can it be fixed, we should be asking, how did our community get to this point, who are we, what essential aspects of what makes us distinctive must we carry forward?

    Once understood, the culture of the community can be embedded in decisions made today. Only then is it possible to say: This is where we need to go; this is why we are at this juncture; this is why it is no longer feasible or desirable to do things the ways in which they have always been done.

    To lead with a sense of history is not being a slave to the past, but rather to acknowledge the power of a community’s store of experience (its evolving culture and capabilities, its development within the broader context in which it competes, and its interactions with government and other forces) shapes the choices leaders make and influences how people and communities can re-imagine the future.

    Communities that embrace their histories, embrace their cultures. They make their community’s collective experience an explicit part of their thinking in order to better discern the form tourism can and should take. Indeed this is the rich legacy that a culturally based place tourism provides.


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