Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2008/January 2009
The Importance of Heritage Tourism
By: Michael Bennett

Until the latter stages of the 20th century, African-American history and culture had been scrubbed from the historical record with the fine precision of a surgeon with a scalpel ridding the body of cancer.

African-American history and culture was considered a blight on what many believed was the pristine record of America's growth and prosperity. As a result much of our story and culture left with the generations who preceded us. Yet many of our cultures and traditions survive to present day through oral discovery and interpretation passed down by our ancestors.

This insular approach to historic preservation is crucial to many of today's advances in the cultural and heritage tourism product. Even after African-Americans learned how to read and write, many of our contributions never made it into mainstream history books. And many of the physical structures that went along with the Black experience died a slow neglected death.

The pride and joy many of us now feel at being a part of recorded history is undeniable. The shackles of revisionist history have finally come tumbling down. That exuberance has fueled a surge in heritage and cultural tourism across all racial and ethnic groups and nowhere is that felt more than in the Black community.

As part of our contribution to cultural and heritage tourism, Black Meetings and Tourism produces an annual issue spotlighting destinations with a significant African-American heritage and cultural tourism product. Cultural and heritage tourism has exploded in recent years and many believe there might be an expanded interest thanks to the election of Barack Obama. How ironic is it that the symbol of American freedom - the White House - was built by slaves and will soon be occupied by an African-American.

Here are a few trivial and not so trivial facts on Black contributions to American culture that you might not be aware of. Did you know that it was an African-American, Lewis Latimer, who while working with Thomas Edison invented the carbon filament for light bulbs? Did you know that an African-American, Garrett Morgan invented the gas mask? Did you know that Otis Boykin invented the electronic control devices for guided missiles, IBM computers and pacemakers? And for parents reading this you can blame Lonnie G. Johnson for inventing that world-famous water gun the Supersoaker.

The preservation of African culture extends beyond America's borders. I attended the African Diaspora Heritage Trail conference in Bermuda last summer and 18 countries were represented all looking to preserve our collective history and establish a link throughout the Diaspora.

The terms heritage tourism and cultural tourism are often used interchangeably. For the purposes of this article I am going to use a definition of heritage tourism as defined by The National Trust for Historic Preservation. Heritage tourism is travel to "experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes the historic, cultural and natural resources."

Above and beyond the obvious preservation of history, there are economic benefits to developing a good heritage tourism product. Those benefits include new businesses, jobs, higher property values, hotel revenues and a more diversified local economy.

Heritage tourism fosters a sense of community pride. Well-interpreted sites not only teach visitors about history, but they also provide know-how that visitors can take back home to start or contribute to their own preservation efforts.

Much of my research for this article indicates that people who incorporate heritage tourism into their travel plans usually stay a few extra days at the destination of their choice. Here are some numbers from the Travel Industry of America (TIA) that support the premise that heritage tourism is a vibrant and growing sector of the overall tourist product. Eighty-five percent of American travelers believe it's important that future generations know and pass on our nation's history. Over 95 million people in the TIA survey believe it's important to learn about other cultures when they travel. Half of all U.S. travelers believe it's important to learn about ethnic heritages different than their own.

To assist travelers and travel agents in the recognition of viable African-American heritage sites, Travel Professionals of Color (TPOC) - a trade group that represents the interests of minority travel professionals - certifies the authenticity of a particular destination through the Authentic African American Heritage Tourism Destination Program. At press time only Detroit and Buffalo have earned this designation. The certification is given to those destinations that have an authentic African-American experience that involves cultural sites, festivals, shopping and cuisine.

The election of Barack Obama as our nation's 44th President has spurred many of us in the media to quantify his impact across a broad spectrum of industries and interests. Some of the questions I've heard on television, radio and in print seem ridiculous on the surface, but I couldn't resist asking those destinations who contributed to this story what impact having an African-American in the White House would have on heritage tourism.

"I think people will get in touch with their culture, realizing that this is a monumental thing that has occurred… His election has caused an international wave of interest, hope, desire, achievements, pride and respect. These are things that I have heard through friends, family and acquaintances throughout the country, especially Hawaii, where I have family. To have become a new city council woman at the same time Barack Obama became the new president-elect is phenomenal in the greatest sense of pride" (Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney; African-American, High Point, NC city council member).

"At this watershed moment in U.S. history, Americans of all backgrounds will be exploring their cultural and heritage contributions to our nation and the world" (Michael McDowell, senior director of Cultural and Tourism for LA Inc.).

"I think more African-Americans and general heritage tourism travelers will be interested in visiting Washington DC. I don't think we will necessarily see an increase as a result of the election, but there maybe a renewed interest in learning about the history of African-Americans' plight in this country" ( Nicole D. Smith, Media Relations and Publications, Midlands Authority for Convention and Sports Tourism ).

"While there is no way to tell at this point what sort of impact the election will have on heritage tourism, the presidential inauguration has already created a great deal of excitement and Richmond's proximity to Washington DC, combined with its vast and diverse American history has made it a popular destination for inauguration travelers" (Erin Bagnell, Public Relations manager, Richmond Convention & Visitors Bureau).

"The election of Barack Obama will generate new interest in learning more about other cultures and an interest in heritage tourism, not only in Knoxville but across the United States" (Linda T. Mann, senior sales manager, Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation).

"Since heritage tourism is the core of Jackson's tourism product, we have always seen an interest in our African-American culture including our unique history, sound, food and hospitality" (Gina Aswell, manager, Communications and Public Relations, Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau).

"Cultural tourism has been one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. Although the election may serve to renew interest for some, we believe that cultural tourism is on the upswing and will continue to remain strong" (Donna Andrews, vice president, Sales and Marketing, Norfolk CVB).


Alabama is widely known as the "Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement" and much of that history, good and bad took place in Birmingham. A good place to start any tour of Birmingham is in the Civil Rights District. While there you can tour the 16th Street Baptist Church. This is the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four African-American girls. The basement has been turned into a memorial in their honor.

Next head over to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute featuring multimedia presentations from post World War I to the present day. Then take a stroll through Kelly Ingram Park before heading over to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

Birmingham occupies a special place in our history, so log on to for more sites and culture.