The imperative of novelty
In recent years, the growth and development of digital applications and elaborate interpretive designs for museums and cultural heritage sites have been nothing short of explosive. Every major site and museum– it seems– wants, or is persuaded, to continually renovate and improve its visitor experience. As I have written over the years (2005, 2007a, 2007b), on-site technology and multimedia centers are often expensive, tend to grow obsolete rather quickly, and necessitate standby maintenance plans.
That is not to say that truly innovative digital technology and interpretive infrastructure do not have their value. The recent Heritage Jam at York University and the Coding Da Vinci Hackathon this summer in Germany have shown that new technologies and other hi-tech methods of interpretation have assumed an important place in the visualization of, and public engagement in, cultural heritage.
The question is rather one of sustainability– the watchword of conservation and management everywhere. Do sites and museums, already financially hard pressed, have to invest continually in new attractions to keep up with the competition? Is novelty an essential requirement for a heritage destination’s sustainability?
Novelty vs. Loyalty in Cultural Tourism
A recent article in the Journal of Travel Research by Elisabeth Kastenholz, Celeste Eusébio and Maria João Carneiro (2013) has answered that question in a surprising way. The authors begin by stressing that the encouragement of repeat visitation (rather than relying solely on attracting new audiences) is a strategy that promotes a dependable revenue stream, more stable and predictable tourism flows, and helps to reduce promotion and advertising costs. They note that studies undertaken across a range of industries have shown that a 5% increase in customer retention can generate a revenue growth of 25–95%.
How does this apply to cultural tourism, which is dominated by one-time visitors, who regularly seek new cultural and heritage experiences in their choice of destinations? The answer, Kastenholz and her colleagues suggest, lies not in novelty but rather in providing quality experiences to domestic visitors and not concentrating on one-time international visitors alone. Their analysis of 4300 survey responses from 27 countries suggests that international travelers visitors are more likely to repeat a visit to a cultural destination when they perceive the destination to have appealing cultural diversity, that is accompanied by welcoming traditions and hospitality. That is, they seem to be more attracted by intangible heritage and the enjoyable atmosphere of the destination– rather than the standard itinerary of historic sites and museums that are visited one time.
Novelty has been the gold standard for achieving destination competitiveness, but the encouragement of destination loyalty may be a more sustainable alternative, “since,” as Kastenholz, et al., write, “repeat visitation increases and stabilizes the sales volume and tourist flows, while further gradually improving the match between hosts and guests, thereby reducing potential conflict and increasing satisfaction amongst all stakeholders involved in the tourism experience on-site.”
The implication is clear: cultural tourist destination should not concentrate solely on investment in new interpretive technologies and expanding physical restoration and infrastructure– always the most expensive investments– but should put special emphasis on developing the living environment and the cultural traditions and practices of the host community as a focus of interaction, not a one-way, one-time gaze. In that respect, public engagement should be aimed at enhancing the continuous appeal of a destination for cultural tourists, by sharing– not merely showing– the distinctive cultural assets of local communities.
Authenticity and Novelty
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Technological innovation may certainly have its place in cultural tourism, but it is not the only way to achieve the kind of novelty that attracts a dependable audience of repeat visitors. Cultural tourism depends on the continual search for authentic experiences and there are always new experiences to be found and promoted in the cultural traditions of the host community. It is crucial therefore that destination marketers and heritage site managers not feel the need to equate heritage authenticity with an unchanging repertoire of certain iconic forms.
At the heart of cultural heritage is the originality and creativity of communities as they develop through time. Those visitors who seek to learn about and interact with the tangible and intangible expressions of a destination’s heritage may be brought back for repeat visits by their discovery of the seemingly hidden, quirky, and evolving cultural traditions of every community– not only by static heritage forms and whiz-bang technology alone.