Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2009/ January 2010
The Importance of Heritage Tourism
By: Sonya Stinson

From music to movies, from the Civil War to civil rights, more and more travelers are seeking authentic experiencesof the culture and history of the places they visit. They’re immersing themselves in the blues of Beale Street and walking in the steps of civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham.

Their journey might take them to an 18th century tobacco farm in Maryland, a secret garden behind an antebellum home in Savannah or a landmark African-American church in Philadelphia.
Seventy-eight percent of all U.S. leisure travelers take part in cultural or heritage activities, spending an average of $994 per trip and contributing more than $192 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Those figures are from a 2009 study conducted by Mandala Research and commissioned by the U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Marketing Council, in conjunction with the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was the lead sponsor of the research, while 13 other tourism organizations also lent financial support. 

The study also revealed that heritage tourists travel farther and more frequently than other travelers. It’s the first study to segment the market of cultural and heritage travelers into five types: passionate, well-rounded, self-guided, aspirational, and keeping it light. Passionate, well-rounded and self-guided travelers are considered the more serious of the bunch. They account for 40 percent of all leisure travelers and contribute nearly $124 billion to the U.S. economy. 

The heritage tourism boom isn’t confined to U.S. borders. Destinations around the world are making efforts to both preserve and draw visitors to their cultural heritage sites. The 2008 election of President Barack Obama, who has familial links to Kenya, sparked a surge of interest in travel to Africa, and several Caribbean destinations have a concerted effort under way to attract heritage tourists.


As Carl Smith, spokesperson for the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Conference & Visitor’s Bureau, views heritage tourism, he says: “It’s not simply an outing to a historic site or event. It is best described as tourism that creates and defines opportunities to experience the places, people, activities and artifacts that authentically represent our past and present. Through heritage tourism, we see, experience and feel our foundations, as we build toward the future.” 

Wanda Collier-Wilson, CEO/president of the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau, says: “Heritage is the celebration of the many historical and cultural elements that make a city or region unique. When you market the heritage of your city to entice visitors to get a taste of what makes your city stand out, that’s when you have heritage tourism.” 

Tanya Hall, executive director of the Multicultural Affairs Congress at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, offers this definition: “To me the term ‘heritage tourism’ means the promotion of diverse people, places, objects and activities of a particular destination.”


For some destinations, heritage travelers have made up a strong segment of the market for many years. For others, the niche is still early in its development but growing in importance. “Greensboro’s local tourism business has long gained from all the heritage tourism offered in the city,” says Ava Pope, director of sales for the Greensboro, North Carolina Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“From the Revolutionary War sites, Civil War sites and now the civil rights sites, Greensboro is steeped in significant places and events that have shaped the history of the city as well as the nation. I consider it a very important part of our tourism base. Whenever we sell the city to conventions, meetings and events, we are not only selling the great facilities we have – hotels and meeting sites – but also the great wealth of history that Greensboro offers.”

In Prince George’s County, Smith describes the heritage tourism market as “still growing and developing” yet important. 

“What makes it important is its significance to the region,” Smith says. “As neighbor to Washington, DC, we are located in what may be the most powerful region in the world. As we bring new and exciting products online (such as our exciting National Harbor development that opened in 2008), heritage tourism provides the connection between the past and present, not just as it relates to Prince George’s County, but the entire Washington metro area.”

The county boasts more than 260 historic sites, but because many of them are not open to visitors, Smith says, “the strength of heritage tourism in Prince George’s County is not necessary economic at this time.”


The heritage tourism experience runs the gamut from browsing museum exhibits and attending an arts festival or performance to actually participating in an authentic cultural activity or a reenactment of a historic event. 

Underground Railroad tours in many Midwest and Northeast destinations recount stories of enslaved Africans who risked their lives for freedom and take visitors to some of the places where they found refuge. One company that has been offering such tours for more than a decade is Motherland Connextions in Niagara Falls, New York. Tours in western New York and southern Ontario, led by guides dressed in period costumes, include views of the Falls. There also is an Underground Re-enactment Tour that lets tourist become “Freedom Seekers” escaping through the woods. 

Motherland Connextions owner and “station master” Kevin Cottrell is a member of the newly formed New York State Underground Railroad Commission. He also coordinates the North Star Project, which was formed to create a heritage tourism district in Niagara Falls. Nearly one hundred years after slavery ended, America’s Southern region became the center of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Today, many of the top visitor destinations in the South have made a 180-degree turn from violent resistance to the movement to a proud promotion of their civil rights heritage. 

James H. Smither, president of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, refers to the Civil Rights Movement as “the second American Revolution.” And because so many pivotal battles in that struggle took place in Birmingham, it became “the city that changed the world.” 

        The Birmingham Civil Rights District includes many historic landmarks related to that era, including the famous 16th Street Baptist Church; the site of the 1963 KKK bombing that killed four young girls. But another local house of faith, Bethel Baptist Church, played an even more critical role in local civil rights history. White supremacists bombed the parsonage of the church on Christmas night in 1956 while the pastor Fred Shuttlesworth and his family slept.  Miraculously, though their home was destroyed, they were unharmed. In 1958 another bomb was set in the unoccupied church. In the face of such violent hatred, Rev. Shuttlesworth became an unwavering leader of the movement. 

“It is the city’s Civil Rights District . . . that fully tells the story of the country’s African-American citizens’ struggle for human rights and simple decency,” Smither says. “It is also within the district that much of the culture of a race is nurtured through celebration and preservation.” 

A protest by a small but courageous group of college students secured Greensboro, North Carolina’s place in the annals of civil rights history, and a long-awaited visitor attraction dedicated to that event is finally about to open.


“The most significant site related to the Civil Rights movement is the brand new International Civil Rights Center & Museum which opens on the 50th anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro,” Pope says. “February 1, 1960, saw four NC A&T freshmen walk downtown from the campus and peacefully ask for a cup of coffee at the ‘whites only’ lunch counter. Their actions helped ignite the sit-in movement across the nation. At the time, no one realized that the five and dime store would become a monument to freedom around the world.”

The museum is located on the very site where the Woolworth’s once stood. “Not many museums sit in the footprint of history. This one does,” Pope says. “The exhibits and historical artifacts are not to be missed.” 

Some destinations have developed tourist attractions that spotlight their industrial or agricultural history. One notable example is the National Colonial Farm in Accokeek, which is located in Prince George’s County, Maryland. 

“In most areas, the historic view of farm life is through the lens of large plantations, which was not the actual norm during the colonial period,” says Smith of the Prince George’s County CVB. “The National Colonial Farm depicts life for an ordinary tobacco planting family – the poorer planters, tenant farmers, indentured servants, and slaves – in Prince George’s County in the 1770’s.” 

Buildings on the site, which is a working farm, include circa 1770 farm dwelling, an 18th century tobacco barn, a smokehouse and an out-kitchen. 

“The kitchen garden features 18th century varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables,” Smith says. “Historic varieties of field crops such as Orinoco tobacco, Virginia Gourdseed corn and Red May wheat are cultivated on a seasonal basis and are the source for much of the farm‘ s heirloom seed stock. The National Colonial Farm is a recognized leader in the field of historic plant preservation. On weekends, skilled interpreters lead tours of the farm, highlighting the colonial structures, fields, gardens, and animals. Visitors may also see sewing, cooking, spinning, dyeing, gardening, candle making, woodworking, and more.” 

According to Hall, one the best places for heritage tourists to visit in her city is the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which has a new main exhibit called “Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876.” 

“The exhibit . . . utilizes cutting-edge technology to provide 10 realistic, full-size figures of trailblazers from the 18th century who engage and interact [with] visitors in dialogue about their contributions to history,” Hall says. “Additionally, visitors can experience first-hand how the youth of this time period worked and lived, serving as a unique comparison to today.” 


Visits to historic buildings and monuments constitute another facet of heritage tourism. Some of these sites are already world-famous, while others are counting on the heritage tourism and preservation movements to make their architectural and historical significance more appreciated.


Most people can list the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House – home of the seamstress who sewed the first American flag – as three of Philadelphia’s signature historic landmarks. What may be less widely known is that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the first major U.S. Museum designed by an African-American architect, or that the city’s Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, founded by Richard Allen in 1792, sits on the nation’s oldest parcel of land to be continuously owned by African-Americans. 

Savannah, the nation’s first planned city, is home to First African Baptist Church, which is the oldest historically Black Baptist church in the United States. The nation’s third oldest synagogue, Temple Mickeve Israel, is also found in Savannah. The historic King-Tisdell Cottage, a museum that was once an African-American residence, spotlights the African-American heritage of Savannah and the nearby Sea Islands. 

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours bring thousands of visitors each spring and fall to tour the antebellum homes of this Mississippi River town. One of the few historic homes open year round in Natchez is the William Johnson House. Operated by the National Park Service, it was the home of a free man of color who kept a diary that is said to be the most detailed personal narrative by an African-American prior to the Civil War. Bontura House, built by Robert Smith, a free Black man who ran a carriage service in the city, is the only home on the Pilgrimage Tours that was constructed by an African-American.


Exploring a destination’s contributions to the visual and performing arts is part of heritage tourism, too. It includes visiting museums and galleries and attending art festivals and performances. One of the hottest niche markets is music heritage travel. 

Some destinations are well known for their musical roots. Philadelphia International Records produced the distinctive soul sounds of artists like the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue notes. Memphis has the Beale Street Historic District, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, as well as Graceland, home of rock and roll icon Elvis Presley. In other cities, the musical history is somewhat of a hidden gem that avid heritage tourists are nevertheless starting to find and appreciate. 

“Jackson, Mississippi, is known as the City with Soul, and we pride ourselves in [the fact] that many visitors come to our city to discover and uncover much about the influence our city has had on many musical genres such as gospel, jazz and blues,” says Collier-Wilson, who notes that Jackson has seven Blues Markers on the Mississippi Blues Marker Trail, more than any other city in the state. 

Collier-Wilson says the historic Farish Street District is the place to be for visitors who want to learn about the city’s musical heritage. This was the birthplace of Ace Records, which carried blues artists like Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith and Bobby Marchand on its label. It’s also home to the Alamo Theater, one of the first sites to be renovated in an ongoing revitalization of the district. 

“It once hosted vaudeville shows, movies, touring jazz acts and a weekly talent contest,” Collier-Wilson says. “Dorothy Moore of ‘Misty Blue’ fame, a native Jacksonian still performing today, was a frequent talent contest winner. Nat King Cole performed here when he found out that his daughter Natalie was born.” 

All of this is just a sampling of the variety of travel experiences that fall under the big umbrella of heritage tourism. Even eco-tourism can be included. Along with their interest in the buildings, the cultural arts and the history of a place, many heritage travelers want to experience its natural environment.

With its focus on making travel to each destination a unique, authentic and unforgettable experience, it’s no wonder that heritage tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry.


LaVerne L. Holmes
Site Seeing Tours, Inc.
Washington, D.C.
Specialties: Black History Month theme tours; Footsteps of Dr. King Tour, which includes stops at the Willard Hotel, the U Street Neighborhood and other places with a connection to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Web site:

Kevin Cottrell
Motherland Connextions
Niagara Falls, NY
Specialties: Underground Railroad tours of western New York and southern Ontario
Web site:

Elaine Turner & Joan Nelson
Heritage Tours, Inc.
Memphis, TN
Specialties: tour to Alex Haley’s boyhood home of Henning, TN; Memphis Black Heritage Tour; Beale Street Night Life Tour
Web site:

Valerie Holton
Black L.A. Tours
Los Angeles
Specialties: family reunion trips to Allensworth State Historic Park, the site of a town founded by former slaves; homes of Black Hollywood stars tour
Phone: (323) 750-9267