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The South Carolina National Heritage Corridor Taps Heritage Tourism Market  

12-09-2015 17:35

Connecting heritage resources with those who might value them (both residents and visitors) is the central challenge and opportunity of heritage tourism. The concept of heritage tourism has been growing over the past two decades. Within this approach, communities build on an existing amenity base through creative packaging of natural, cultural, and historic resources. Through regional cooperation, communities collectively reap the economic benefit of increased tourism traffic, which serves as a catalyst for overall business growth and development. At the same time, there is growing recognition within communities of the value of heritage resources and a greater willingness to protect and conserve them.

By weaving the threads of South Carolina’s history, culture, and natural resources together in a defined heritage area -- the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor -- the state has added to its available tourism product and increased visitation and spending. According to a study prepared by Lane, Frenchman and Associates of Boston, full implementation of the corridor will mean as many as 700,000 additional visitor days and will generate $83.5 million in new tourism revenue each year. As an economic development strategy to improve primarily rural areas in the state, the Corridor has taken a unique approach to its development by focusing on heritage tourism in three important and interrelated areas: organizational development, product development, and marketing.


The South Carolina National Heritage Corridor received congressional designation in 1996 as a national heritage area, one of the first in the southeastern United States. The corridor represents 14 counties along a 240-mile stretch from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The area is divided into four regions, each with a planned Discovery Center to tell the story of the land and people in that area.

The project is organized at the local and regional level, with the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism (SCPRT) working with committees in each community, county, and region. Management is handled through SCPRT by an agreement with a nonprofit board of directors made up of representatives from each region. Consistent planning and support through training and technical assistance enables local leaders to stay on track and find opportunities to fit within a larger, more complex tourism market.

Product Development

Product development in the corridor has centered chiefly on creation of a tourism infrastructure in counties that have not always seen the benefit of tourism. The Discovery System is the mechanism to provide regional interpretation, wayfinding, and visitor services throughout the 14- county region.

Funding for the Discovery System has come from the South Carolina state legislature. The General Assembly awarded $1 million for the project in 1998. Those funds have been used to develop the master interpretive plan and provide exhibits and signage for the first Discovery Center, which opened at Clemson University in May 2001. A second appropriation of $2 million in FY 01 funded interpretation centers for two more regions. The buildings to house the centers are provided by partners at the local level, and operations are a joint effort with the state welcome center program.

Regional interpretation is a unifying process and linchpin for the corridor because it:

• weaves together the diverse resources and varying themes of the four regions;

• serves as a visitor management tool to ensure visitors move safely and smoothly from site to site;

• provides an educational context for schoolchildren and residents to better understand and appreciate the historic, cultural, and natural heritage of the area.

A comprehensive interpretive plan was completed in 2001 with the development of the first Discovery Center. The interpretive plan built on the concepts initially presented in the management plan, along with regional narratives compiled by staff at the South Carolina State Museum Commission and research on folkways and traditional arts by the staff of the South Carolina Arts Commission under contract with SCPRT. The master interpretive plan provides the foundation for interpretive planning and exhibit development within the system.

The comprehensive interpretation developed for the Corridor is delivered through Discovery Centers, Discovery Stops, and Discovery Sites. The four Discovery Centers serve as gateways into the regions by providing in-depth interpretation and visitor information. Additionally, Discovery Stops are strategically placed in each of the corridor counties to provide smaller-scale exhibits and visitor services. Discovery Site signage explains the significance of individual sites to the main and ancillary themes. The two primary themes are Working Places: Farms to Factories & Beyond and Southern Culture: A Rural Heritage. Within the Working Places theme are sub-themes of Working the Land, Traversing the Land, Politics & Commerce, and Roots of Southern Industry. In the first two Discovery Centers, these themes led to specific exhibits centered on the textile industry and the importance of crops such as cotton to the state’s growth and development.

To be designated a Discovery Stop or Site, attractions must meet established criteria and be approved by the regional and Corridor boards. A team has been hired to review prototype designs and construct the Stops and Sites for the upper half of the Corridor and to develop a wayfinding plan for linking them. Their work will serve as a prototype for the entire heritage area. The Corridor grants program is focused on strengthening the designated Stops and Sites as viable tourism attractions. Additionally, a partnership with the South Carolina Arts Commission has meant the hiring of a full-time folklorist to work on developing traditional arts projects with tourism potential, adding to the level of programming available and providing an additional opportunity to tie related sites together.


The Corridor hired a marketing communications agency in 2001 to develop a comprehensive marketing plan to promote the Corridor. As part of the research process, the firm subcontracted with an independent marketing research firm to conduct a series of formal studies, including an analysis of all available secondary research and two seasonal studies of current visitors. The research also included on-site visits to locations in all four regions to gather extensive information from stakeholders, as well as an analysis of potential competition and possible partners for future marketing efforts.

Based on the research, the following appears to be a snapshot of current Corridor visitors:

1. Between 40 percent and 50 percent are from South Carolina; other visitors come largely from Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.

2. The typical visitor is traveling by car, is middle to older age, with above average education and household income, married, and frequently traveling with his or her spouse or immediate family.

3. Visitors to the Corridor are most likely to represent the following psychographic groups:

  • Natural Families cluster, which refers to married, two-parent families with children at home;
  • Classic Relaxers category, including single professionals;
  • Active Families who tend to be family-focused, married with children in the home; (on average, these families wish to be much busier when on vacation.)
  • Sightseers, who are generally empty-nesters or retirees with no children at home.

While in the area, visitors are most likely to visit parks and scenic areas and/or take scenic drives. The experience for travelers along the Corridor is one of small-town friendliness, simple pleasures, and intellectual challenge -- something that must be experienced rather than merely seen. The Corridor’s attractions are extremely diverse but unique in their authenticity. In field testing, the slogan that most closely matched the brand in the visitors’ eyes was “Discover Real People, Real Places.”

Because of the overall diversity of product, the marketing firm recommended focusing on niche markets around fields of interest that could be collectively packaged. These included water recreation; arts and antiques; hiking, birding, and watch-able wildlife; scenic drives; adventure travel; plantations and historic architecture; farms and gardens; military sites and battlefields; mill villages and courthouse towns; and African-American heritage.

The Corridor is already reaping the benefits of capitalizing on such a strategy. Working with the department’s advertising and communications firm, the state recently developed a four-page “advertorial” celebrating its heritage, especially the contributions of the African-American community, for publication in Smithsonian, Savoy, American Heritage and Preservation magazines. The insert ran in conjunction with Black History Month and yielded interest from all over the country.

The Future

Implementation of the Corridor marketing plan also will include development of an e-marketing initiative that ties to the website, cementing the brand and building stakeholder awareness within the Corridor. From a product development standpoint, the state will need to finish the interpretive system in the remaining two regions of the Corridor. Communities and local leaders will continue to focus on strengthening the existing tourism product beyond designated Stops and Sites and find ways to tell the whole community’s story through meaningful interpretation. Additionally, the Corridor will need to develop strategies for fostering business development opportunities with the private sector and seed development of unique heritage programming to further engage the visitor.

The South Carolina National Heritage Corridor has a range and depth to its tourism product that is to be envied. The challenge is to package that diversity under a single brand and connect that heritage experience with tourists in a state that already receives 30 million visitors a year, while protecting what makes the state truly unique to visitors and residents alike.

Publication Date: Summer 2003


Author(s):Curt Cottle