Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2007/January 2008
The Importance of Heritage Tourism
By: Sonya Stinson

The traveler who takes a tour of local historic landmarks or joins in the revelry of a regional cultural festival is exactly the kind of visitor every city would love to have more of. Destinations are putting major investments into the development of heritage tourism: restoring old homes and churches, building new cultural and historical museums, and creating special marketing materials targeting visitors who hunger for an authentic taste of what makes a place unique.

Of course, all kinds of visitor s — from outdoor adventurers to theme park fans — are equally welcome, bit it’s the heritage tourists who tend to stay longer and spend more money while they’re in town. The last time the Travel Industry Association of America tracked the trend, in its 2003 Historic/Cultural Traveler survey, it found that historic/cultural travelers spent about 36% more during their stay than the average U.S. trip ($623 vs. $457, not counting transportation). The survey also showed that historic/cultural trips were more likely than the average to last at least seven nights and include air travel, a rental car and hotel lodging.

The TIA reported that 81% of all adult U.S. travelers said they included historical or cultural activities in their trips, and 30% of that group said they chose a travel destination at least partly because of a special cultural or historical event or activity.

Four years later, the travel industry professionals we contacted for this article see nothing but growth in the appetite for heritage attractions. Here’s a look at what they are offering to satisfy those cultural cravings.


More people visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site than any other heritage attraction in Atlanta, says Suzanne Forte, public relations specialists at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Located in the historic Black neighborhood known as the Sweet Auburn District, the site encompasses Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Visitors Center, the tombs of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Fire Station No. 6 and King's Birth Home.

“While discovering the site, visitors will be inspired by the life and legacy of Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement and message of nonviolence,” Forte says. “The campus also offers a self-guided multimedia tour that features images, digital directions and sermons from Dr. King.”

The recent five-month “I Have a Dream” exhibit offered a rare chance to view 10,000 original pieces of King’s writings. “More than 72,000 people from all over the world got a privileged glimpse of handwritten drafts of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,  (the) ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ (King’s) sermons and his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech,” Forte says. The King collection will have a permanent home in the new Center for Civil and Human Rights that is expected to open in Atlanta in 2010. Emphasizing the roles of Atlanta and the state of Georgia in the American Civil Rights Movement and the worldwide struggle for equality, the center will present a variety of performances, lectures and symposiums. The site selection is still being finalized.

Attractions like the King site, the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame and the Atlanta Cyclorama — a cylindrical panoramic painting in Grant Park that recreates the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta — enhance the city’s appeal as a travel destination, according to Forte.

“Cultural and heritage tourism is extremely important to Atlanta’s overall economy,” Forte says. “In addition to being a huge economic generator, the cultural market segment enhances the city’s reputation.”

Birmingham is rich in cultural experiences.


Millions of visitors have toured the Birmingham Civil Rights District to view legendary sites like the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park. But according to Vickie S. Ashford, director of travel media for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, another important historic treasure lies somewhat off the beaten path.

“Though 16th Street Baptist Church is (the city’s) most famous civil rights landmark, it was Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church that is credited with shaping the Civil Rights Movement here,” Ashford says. 

Led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from 1953 until 1961, Bethel Baptist often served as a meeting place for those active in the movement. Shuttlesworth continued to be a leading civil rights figure even after he left Birmingham for Cincinnati in 1961.

The church parsonage was bombed on Christmas night in 1956 while Shuttlesworth and his family slept, though miraculously they were unharmed. In 1958 the church itself was bombed while unoccupied, an event that Ashford says “cemented Shuttlesworth's fiery determination to bring Birmingham to the center of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“It's well worth the short trip across town to view this significant landmark,” Ashford says.

Local tourism officials view heritage tourism as a critical piece of the city’s overall tourism economy, particularly when it comes to group travel.

“Though the CVB does not separate heritage tourism from other travel statistics, we estimate about 30% of our group tour business is directly related to heritage tourism,” Ashford says.

Today, Birmingham is winning accolades for its willingness to take an unflinching view of some of the darkest aspects of its racial history.

“Birmingham is a city that changed the world,” Ashford notes. “Our civil rights history, both a curse and a huge blessing, will always be an indelible part of the city's rich fabric of existence.”


Each year on the third weekend in September, Cincinnati hosts the largest Ocktoberfest outside of Munich. Besides experiencing Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati — complete with entertainment by the world’s largest kazoo band and chicken dance — visitors can get a taste of the city’s influential German heritage at places like the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, MainStrasse Village and Mecklinburg Gardens, the area’s oldest German bier garden.

Dan Lincoln, president & CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, says one of the city’s top heritage attractions is Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. With its acclaimed architectural design, the center houses the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, Cincinnati History Museum, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science, Cincinnati Historical Society Library and Robert D. Lindner Family OMNIMAX Theater — all under one roof. 

“Attendees will be in for a treat when they visit this architectural art deco masterpiece,” Lincoln says. “From the outside this former railroad terminal might look like an old-school, larger-than-life radio, but a look on the inside reveals the largest half dome in the Western Hemisphere, detailed with 14 mosaic murals depicting Cincinnati’s history.”

Lincoln adds that heritage tourism in Cincinnati is a family affair, with visitors of all ages coming to sites like the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004.

“Many of our world-class museums have already begun to tap into this finding and are creating programming that gives visitors hands-on experience, and a chance to make their museum visit personally relevant and memorable,” Lincoln says. “For instance, the Freedom Center offers a free Family Search Center to help families research their roots and discover their family story.”


“Culture and heritage tourism is very important to us,” says Nicole D. Smith, director of media relations and publications at the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism in Columbia, SC.  “After all, we are the first planned city in the United States.  Our area holds a lot of history and we work hard to help preserve it so that we are able to tell our story.”

The Historic Columbia Foundation manages four historic house museums: the Robert Mills House and Park, Mann-Simons Cottage; the home of Celia Mann, a free person of color; the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House, named for the African-American civil rights activist who purchased it in 1932; the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, which is currently closed for restoration. 

Between January 2007 and October 2007, 7,720 visitors toured the three Historic Columbia Foundation museums that are currently open to the public, including 2,310 who visited Mann-Simons Cottage.

The foundation also operates an African-American heritage tour, with stops including the South Carolina Community Bank, Bethel AME Church — designed by John Langford, the nation’s first registered Black architect — two historically Black universities and the Big Apple, a former synagogue that is now a popular nightclub. Latrice Williams, director of communications at the Historic Columbia Foundation, notes that Bethel AME Church is undergoing restoration to be converted to a community and art center.

“Many times we coordinate (the tour) with one of our house museums, the Mann-Simons Cottage, so (tourists) step off and tour the cottage, which was the home of a freed slave born in Charleston,” says Ann Posner, volunteer and visitor services coordinator at the Historic Columbia Foundation, who notes that the tour groups are multigenerational. “Then we always stop off at the State House and see the African-American Monument on the grounds. Sometimes people choose to stay after the tour on our grounds, where we have a carriage house, and they’ll have a box lunch.”


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