Cheryl Hargrove on Cultural Heritage Tourism

By Carolyn Brackett posted 11-22-2017 13:53


Cheryl Hargrove was the first director of heritage tourism for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, serving from 1989 through 1995. As a national leader in heritage tourism, Hargrove developed key steps and principles for sustainable tourism focusing on history and culture, which hundreds of communities across the world have used over the past three decades. Her new book, Cultural Heritage Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability (published by the American Association for State and Local History), provides in-depth guidance for starting or growing a successful heritage tourism program and includes numerous case studies. 

We checked in with Hargrove recently and asked her to share her thoughts on how cultural heritage tourism (CHT) has grown and changed.

The annual arrival of cliff swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano in California attracts visitors from around the globe. Admissions help support preservation and stewardship of the mission. | Credit: Mission San Juan Capistrano

What does CHT mean to you? How is it different from other kinds of tourism?

CHT focuses on the unique combination of authentic experiences that define a place, person, or event—those activities that are worth a drive or a plane ride, that can’t be experienced at home.

I look at CHT in a holistic way, beyond just historic sites and cultural attractions. While I love museums that tell a fascinating local story, I also travel on my stomach. To me, no CHT visit is complete without unique dining—preferably at a locally owned restaurant in a historic building! If there is a great venue at which to hear local music or see a show, that also adds to my experience. And if I have a great time, I always look for something unique—an art piece, food, or a handmade object—to purchase as a souvenir.

How is CHT different? It uses assets that are already available to offer distinctive and valued experiences: the historic buildings; the local traditions, crafts, music, cuisine, and stories; and the people who live, work, and play there. Some people enjoy theme parks and other manufactured attractions, but I prefer the real deal.


The historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta features lavish sculptures framed by large shade trees. Special events and private tours generate funds for preservation and perpetual care. | Ren and Helen Davis

In 1989 you developed a four-step process to guide CHT development: analyze the potential, plan and engage, develop authentically, and market for impact. In your recent book, you added a fifth step: manage for growth and sustainability. Why did you feel that this step was necessary, and how should it be implemented?  

Since we first developed the heritage tourism program, CHT has exploded, with more than a billion people traveling to heritage sites each year. Three trends resulting from this global growth led me to add the fifth step: 

  • Exceeded capacity. More people traveling means more pressure on desired destinations. Many places are being loved to death, so managing tourism is becoming more important. Otherwise, the negative impacts outweigh the benefits of tourism and local residents object. Think of Rome and Venice in Italy or Barcelona in Spain—or, closer to home, Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans. Tourism management now needs to be part of the planning process.
  • Authentic delivery. Organizations have focused on the development but not the delivery. An increasing number of destinations are marketing CHT to attract visitors, but not all attractions or activities meet visitor expectations. We still have museums that are not open on a regular basis—and you can’t host visitors if you aren’t open when they are in town. And since technology has made access to information instantaneous, local immersion has becomes all the more important—delivering a consistently high-quality experiences is the only way to compete for visitors’ time and money. And that requires having good leadership and a strong host organization.
  • Important research. Big data is now the tourism standard for market-based decision-making, but our segment does a horrible job at funding and conducting market research. We don’t regularly track and measure the impact of CHT beyond a few local, state, and national studies. To make informed decisions, organizations need to include strategies for documenting visitation and impact. Understanding visitor interests and experiences can help shape programs and activities to ensure that people will visit.

Tourism is a constantly evolving industry, and anyone planning to host visitors should not only develop and market but also manage the continued delivery of experience. We have to understand how CHT fits into our overall mission or vision and monitor its impact to make sure that we are delivering value to the visitors as well as to the historic resources and the organizations that steward them. That’s why I added the fifth step: to help organizations and destinations realize that CHT is never finished and requires continuous oversight and a long-term commitment.


 The Earl Scruggs Center gives new life to this abandoned courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina. A tribute to a native son and renowned musician, the center is now a major attraction on the Blue Ridge Music Trail. Students enjoy interactive exhibits at The Earl Scruggs Center. | Credit: The Earl Scruggs Center

How is CHT useful for historic preservation? What are the benefits and challenges related to preservation?

Old buildings—especially ones with distinctive architecture or unique spaces—provide character to places. They provide a visual context in which to tell the community story, from past to present.

The reason I joined the National Trust to start the heritage tourism program almost 30 years ago remains relevant today. Someone visiting a place where historic sites are part of a vibrant downtown, home to informative museums, stages for local entertainment, or unique settings for favorite bars or restaurants will hopefully return home with an appreciation of their value. And perhaps they’ll identify historic sites in their hometown that can be revived for the benefit of residents and visitors.

One constant challenge is funding. Historic sites always need care and upkeep, but when they are used for CHT, they also need to offer exceptional experiences to the public and receive enough funding to sustain exhibits, programs, activities, and marketing. The number of sites waiting to be developed into exciting CHT experiences seems endless. But the reality is that many attractions can’t survive or sustain themselves on tourism receipts alone, so good market-facing business plans and sufficient investment to sustain operation are essential. Preservationists often have to set priorities and make tough decisions about which sites are most viable for renovation into CHT attractions.

 Ka’ili’s Restaurant in Santa Clara, Utah, is named after Herbert Ka’ilieha Pililaau, Hawaii’s first Congressional Medal of Honor recipient—and uncle of the proprietor. | Credit: Ka’ili’s Restaurant 

What tips do you have for building successful partnerships and cultivating an understanding and appreciation of partners’ varied goals?

Partnerships are best forged as handshakes rather than handouts. The most successful collaborations provide benefits to all parties. Ideally, partners identify a commonly beneficial outcome and work backwards from there to determine the necessary steps and resources. Make sure to celebrate small successes along the way to keep up momentum.

How have you seen CHT grow or change since the 1980s? Do you see CHT as a key strategy for historic preservation in the future?

In some ways, CHT has become more mainstream—recognized and accepted as part of an asset-based economic development strategy. It has also evolved and become defined by new niche segments like culinary tourism, music tourism, agritourism, military tourism, and others. 

One of the biggest changes is the impact of technology on how we receive and process information. It has made fact-based interpretation critical to the integrity—and credibility—of experiences. Visitors are now much more demanding; the bar has been raised on what is expected at a museum, event, or guided tour. 

Looking ahead, I see CHT becoming an increasingly important platform for place-based education, especially about difficult periods of history. Yes, we all enjoy visiting places that are fun and engaging. But we also have a responsibility to tell the complete stories of the past. I hope we can use CHT as a vehicle for honest and respectful conversations about our past and relate those discussions to present-day issues. We can’t rewrite history, but we should learn from it and make sure all voices are heard. 

 Carolyn Brackett is a senior field officer in the field services department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Blog readers can order Cultural Heritage Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability by calling 1-800-462-6420 or visiting and using promo code RLFANDF30 for a 30 percent discount.

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