Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Cultural Heritage Tourism Trends Affecting Historic Sites 

12-09-2015 17:35

A baby boomer couple decides to take a getaway trip to experience some of America’s heritage in a quaint small town. They begin by checking into a restored early-20th-century bed and breakfast. After chatting with the owners about the building’s history and the owners’ restoration efforts, they venture downtown to an old warehouse that has been converted into a restaurant serving locally grown foods and featuring traditional live bluegrass music. The next day, they enjoy a guided neighborhood walking tour by interpreters portraying historical characters. After the tour, they drive through the countryside to view the scenery and to shop at local artists’ studios for mementos of their visit.

This couple has enjoyed what the travel industry defines as a “cultural heritage travel experience” — without ever visiting a traditional historic site museum. While not too long ago a preserved “historic site” almost always meant “museum,” the field of preservation has broadened to address a range of historic sites that are still in use for their original purpose as well as historic sites adaptively used to meet today’s needs.


Numerous studies show that interest in cultural heritage travel experiences is increasing. A national study of cultural heritage travelers completed in 1998 and updated in 2001 showed that interest in cultural heritage tourism grew 13 percent, more than twice the increase of tourism in the United States overall. More than 43 percent of all U.S. travelers included a visit to a heritage site, battlefield, or historic community (Travel Industry Association of America: Historic/Cultural Traveler 2002).A 2007 survey indicates these numbers continue to grow: 51.1 percent of respondents said they visited a historic place in the past year (Destination Analysts, Inc.: The State of the American Traveler, January 2007).


While interest in cultural heritage travel is reaching new heights, many historic site museum managers report that visitation at the sites they operate is either flat or declining. This apparent contradiction raises a number of questions. If cultural heritage tourism is truly on the rise, shouldn’t historic site museums be seeing more visitors? Are the national studies on cultural heritage tourism flawed? Is cultural heritage tourism an outmoded idea? Are historic sites somehow failing to capture the interest of cultural heritage travelers?


A good place to begin is by understanding who cultural heritage travelers are and what they are looking for in their travel experiences. The Travel Industry Association’s 2002 Historic/Cultural Traveler Report shows that 4 in 10 cultural heritage travelers are from baby boomer households (44–62 years old). A 2006 survey of visitors to historic house museums found a similar profile; 36 percent of those saying they planned to visit a historic house museum were between the ages of 55 and 64 (Synovate Travel and Leisure/DataPath Systems weekly travel survey).

By 2020 more than one-third of Americans will be over age 50. Because baby boomers generate more travel than any other age group and intend to continue this active lifestyle as they retire, they are already creating new demands on the travel industry, such as for experience-based travel and accessibility for those with limited mobility. Baby boomers are redefining leisure travel by seeking out high-quality, authentic, and interactive experiences. This comes as no surprise to the travel industry. A 1998 National Tour Association study accurately predicted this trend, stating “because boomers are more experienced travelers, they will expect more from their experiences, and terms such as cultural tourism, heritage tourism, sports tourism, active tourism, adventure travel, and ecotourism will be commonly used within the next decade.”


With studies consistently showing that cultural heritage travel is thriving and with communities across the country actively developing heritage tourism programs, the decline in historic site museum visitation needs careful analysis to understand the dilemma — and to identify opportunities to reverse this trend. These are some factors to consider:

There are a growing number of historic site museums in America. The number of historic site museums continues to grow without a strategic rethinking of the collection as a whole. In some cases, this has meant having several historic house museums in close proximity that offer essentially duplicate experiences. In other cases, new historic site museums are opening that represent America’s changing demographics or a broader story of everyday life, yet we still hold on to older sites that are significant to a shrinking demographic. However, the idea of closing a historic site museum or converting it to another use has until recently been considered a failure.

“Historic site” is no longer synonymous with “museum.” In the early days of preservation, referring to a “historic site” inevitably meant a historic site museum. Indeed, what might be called the beginning of heritage tourism was the preservation of George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 1859 and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in 1889. These sites and others were saved to make them available for visitors to tour.

Today, while historic site museums remain a significant part of the preservation movement, the concept of preservation has expanded to encompass a broader spectrum of America’s historic fabric. As in the case of the baby boomer couple’s weekend trip, the result is a heritage tourism experience that features a packed itinerary without including a traditional historic house museum. History may be conveyed through a brochure placed in a B&B guest room, in a narrative on the restaurant menu, on interpretive signage downtown, or with audio tours. Thus historic site museums may also compete against other historic sites — some of which may offer visitors a more engaging or unique experience.

Historic site museum tours don’t always fit into hectic schedules. Research clearly reflects changing travel patterns — more than 50 percent of travel is on the weekend, and 55 percent of travelers plan their trip one month or less in advance. In addition, 26 percent of tourists make decisions about museum tours after arriving at a destination. Tourists also may want to fit many different activities into their trip, including shopping, recreational activities, or visiting friends and family.

For many historic site museums, limited hours, days, and months of operation are the norm. The result is that visitors who may want to tour a historic site museum may not be able to simply because it is not open when they are available. At the same time, other attractions — such as zoos or theme parks — usually offer regular hours and days of operation and are able to accommodate tourists’ schedules.

Partnerships with the travel industry may not have been established. The travel industry is fast paced and frequently requires an investment of time and funds that many historic site museums do not have. Often the responsibility for marketing falls to the executive director or a volunteer committee with little tourism experience and minimal funds to direct toward marketing. Promotions are frequently limited to printing a brochure or purchasing an occasional advertisement instead of developing a marketing plan and establishing partnerships with the tourism bureau and other attractions. Historic site museum managers must also decide where to direct limited resources as they try to attract and serve not only tourists but also local residents, schoolchildren, and members.


Although these challenges might create a bleak picture, historic site museums can benefit from the growth of cultural heritage travel with new strategies that respond to the changing needs of today’s travelers. Many historic site museum staff and volunteers are taking steps to attract more visitors and to position sites as a key component of a destination. Successful strategies shared by many historic site museums include:

Design tours that will engage today’s visitors. In finding the balance between caring for collections and providing meaningful and interactive visitor experiences, historic site museums have tended to emphasize collections care. While collections are indisputably important, it is time for the pendulum to swing toward a stronger focus on the visitor experience. The authors of Great Tours! Thematic Tours and Guide Training for Historic Sites1 identify two key questions: “What does our site illustrate best about the past?” and “How can we use our resources to amplify and communicate our site’s historical messages?” The authors note that understanding a historic site’s story and making the best use of all its resources including buildings, landscape, collections — and people — are the “essential foundation for creating informative, memorable guided tours at historic sites.”

For example, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, a range of guided tours focus on the stories of real immigrant families, and tour guides connect those past experiences to immigration experiences amongst the present-day tour-goers. Kate Stober, public relations coordinator for the tenement museum, explains that the museum is “one of the only places in the world that tells the story of the laboring class, of poor immigrants and migrants.” This unique experience conveys a sense of the challenging conditions that many immigrants faced upon arrival in America and speaks to a broad segment of America’s changing population. This may help to explain why the museum has seen annual attendance figures steadily increasing from 16,000 in 1994 when guided tours were first offered to 128,513 in 2007. Attendance has grown every year except for the year around 9/11 when visitation remained at the same level as the previous year.

Offer unique and innovative special programs. In addition to offering tours, consider ways to use the site creatively during hours or days when regular tours are not given. Creating unique programs and activities can attract targeted niche audiences of both tourists and local residents. Opportunities can range from programs with knowledgeable speakers to behind-the-scenes tours, hands on activities, or even classes. Because these programs are usually limited to a small group and they require special planning, they can also command an admission price that not only covers the cost of producing the program but provides a profit. For example, the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers a quarterly evening workshop series called the “Architecture Fantasy Camp” at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill., that allows non-architect participants to work on a design project in Wright’s architectural studio under the direction of trained architects.

Recruit more involvement by the local community. Forty-three percent of people who volunteer say they became involved because they were asked by someone in the organization (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2004-2005). Historic site museums often look to community leaders to serve on boards or to head fundraising campaigns. But there are many opportunities to involve local residents that will fulfill their enjoyment of volunteer service and benefit the historic site.

Consider ways that local volunteers can be involved in developing programs or tours or help with tasks ranging from landscaping to hosting events. Recruit volunteers by becoming visible in the community — speak to civic and school groups, place notices in the local newspaper, confer with other historic sites about possibly sharing volunteers, and work with community volunteer placement organizations.

Don’t rely only on a tourism audience or only on a local community audience. The most successful historic site museums appeal to diverse audiences of both out-of town visitors and residents. Diversifying has the dual advantage of expanding market potential and at the same time buffering historic sites in the event of a downturn in any one target market. For example, the historic Hardesty-Higgins House in Harrisonburg, Va., has been renovated as a multi-use facility and provides a combination of offerings including a visitors center, tea house/restaurant, and the Valley Turnpike Museum, appealing to both locals and visitors.

Take advantage of tourism marketing venues. There are many ways that historic site museums can work with local and state tourism bureaus to promote their sites at little or no cost. Cost-effective opportunities can include keeping event and tour announcements up-to-date on tourism websites; participating in familiarization tours for travel writers or tour operators; providing free admission to tourism bureau and frontline travel industry staff; hosting local tourism industry meetings at the site; and participating in cooperative advertising purchases. In addition, all historic site museums should maintain a website that is kept current and linked to other attractions as well as tourism bureaus. Placing information on the website in a downloadable format can keep down the costs of printing and distributing brochures.

Don’t get stuck in the status quo; be open to and embrace change. The best approach for a historic site in 1968 or 1988 may not be the best approach in 2008. If it is not possible to adapt to meet today’s needs, it may be necessary to make the difficult decision to transition to a new use. In some cases, allowing one museum to go away may make room for a new historic site museum that reflects the stories of greatest relevance to today’s changing American population. For those historic sites that have reached the end of their viable lifespan as museums, responsible stewards will need to guide the site through a transition to an appropriate alternative use. This is a natural evolutionary process that will ensure the sustainability of the most important item in the museum’s collection — the historic site itself.


In analyzing the trends at historic site museums, it is important to consider changes to the demand as well as the supply side of the equation. While there are more cultural heritage travelers now than perhaps ever before, traditional historic site museums don’t necessarily always offer what today’s travelers are looking for. The bar has been raised, and historic site museums that do not adapt will continue to experience declining visitation. Competition is increasing, not only from new historic site museums but also from other heritage and non-heritage attractions and experiences that are vying for visitors’ time.

For some historic site museums, shifting the primary focus to the visitor experience will draw sufficient visitation to justify existence as a museum. Other historic site museums may need to reevaluate their core mission. It may not be possible to support an ever expanding number of historic site museums, the majority of which require underwriting from governmental or private sources. If there are other historic site museums that provide similar experiences nearby, or if the museum’s focus is less relevant to audiences today, it may be time to reconsider the site’s function.

If in the coming years we create innovative visitor experiences at our historic site museums, we will see these sites benefit from the growth of cultural heritage travel as they become part of well-preserved historic communities that offer a variety of engaging opportunities to learn valuable lessons about our heritage.

1 Barbara Abramoff Levy, Sandra MacKenzie Lloyd, and Susan Porter Schreiber (Alta Mira Press, American Association for State and Local History, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001).

Publication Date: Spring 2008


Author(s):Amy Webb and Carolyn Brackett