Authentic places are becoming more valuable and protecting or reclaiming what is authentic is worth the effort.
Tourism that offers authentic experiences of interesting places is already important, and it will become more so in the future. You may think that’s what travel was always about, and you would be partly right, but for more than a half-century tourism has been focused on recreation and entertainment and on facilities built expressly for those purposes. When people travel to a grand recreational lodge, a waterpark, a theme park, or a destination created especially for tourism (think of Branson, Missouri) an authentic experience of place is probably not what’s on their minds. And in other places tourism may seem like something extra added to a place for economic reasons, rather than like a natural quality of the place.
Entertainment tourism often fits in places as a kind of separate layer, often in a particular district, and is comprised of attractions, hotels and other lodging, restaurants, and designed experiences.
Place-based tourism, or destination-centered tourism, aims to deliver to visitors an experience of a place that rises out of its actual qualities. It may be overwhelmingly about the landscape (the Grand Canyon) or the built environment (Venice or Dubrovnic) or about a rich culture (New Orleans) or some combination of those things (Paris). But it is always about the destination, the place itself. What it celebrates was not added to the place by the tourism industry, and the tourism apparatus may or may not optimally support and reveal the destination.
There are several reasons authentic destination-centered tourism is growing in importance. First, as more and more places turn to tourism to help their economies, each of them will have to develop the supporting infrastructure of lodging and other services which are required. But if they also have to develop tourism attractions of sufficient magnetism to attract visitors, the cost of adding tourism may be prohibitive. And Place tourism is less brittle, too—less subject to being outdone by the new new thing.
The next generation of travelers is focused on what is authentic, so much so that the entire way of reaching them with commercial messages has been altered by many advertising and media companies. They can’t be sold to and demand authenticity.
And as places become more and more alike with national chains dominating the landscape, there are fewer opportunities to experience authenticity (one hotel desk clerk when asked, what do you like about this place, responded that there was a very lovely downtown less than a mile away – pointing in the right direction. We asked if the photo behind her was of that town, she said no, she didn’t know where it was from, and by the way her town was much prettier).
Entertainment/recreational tourism can add to local quality of life, because locals may enjoy doing the same things visitors do. However, Place tourism is much better able to enhance local quality of life, because it rises directly out of qualities of place that visitors will want to experience, which are most probably already cherished by locals. If your town has a restaurant on a hill with a hundred mile view down a valley, or one of the best ice-cream stores in the country, or an exquisite Russian Orthodox Church, chances are they are all local favorites. How can they become a place-experience (by that we don’t mean copy on a map). In and around Scranton, Pennsylvania there are remarkable second and third and even fourth-generation Italian restaurants, often with distinctive specialties. Scranton is not promoting those experiences to visitors, but they could, and that would keep what locals love viable and even growing.
There is always a risk that tourism will consume what it celebrates: the pristine spot on the beach, once two hotels build there, will probably be less pristine. That’s one reason among many that tourism cannot be left to the tourism industry, but must be embraced and shaped by a community looking out for its own interest. But if you do it right, Place tourism can add to local quality of life. It is a tool.