Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, Pittsfield, MA
A version of this article was first published at economicdevelopment.org
I know there is a strong desire in many travelers to enrich themselves intellectually and emotionally. I feel this urge deeply myself.
I’m a literary tourist. For much of the past decade I’ve had the good fortune of traveling around the world seeking out and enjoying enriching personal experiences. As a result of wanting to share these experiences with other book-loving travelers – to make it easier for them to find the same – and to encourage cities to investigate, nurture and celebrate their literary heritage, I launched a website in 2010 at www.literarytourist.com
Here then, from the perspective of a passionate, peripatetic bibliophile – and more recently a literary tourism booster - are observations on how cities can best attract people like me.
1. “Focus on the Customer”
Paul Nursey formerly of the Canadian Tourism Commission, now with Tourism Victoria, has suggested that strategic themes focusing on “supply side verticals” – such as Cultural Tourists – have lost prevalence over the past decade, with tourism marketers now focusing much more intently on the customer ( a strategy which, incidentally, has been employed par excellence by a company that could, perhaps more than any other, be blamed for eroding the unique character of communities across North America). Amazon, with its CEO Jeff Bezos, has produced impressive results for shareholders during the past decade. Ironically, their success explains in part why so many locally owned brick and mortar bookshops have been closing their doors.
Tired of serving as show rooms for visitors who turn around and buy for less on-line, booksellers have, in number, been packing up their paperbacks and hard covers, escaping hefty rents, moving out of downtown, and setting up as Internet-only dealers. While it does little good to complain about Amazon’s successful new business model, it is worth taking a page from their book, and focusing, as Paul says, on the customer.
So, what does the the cultural/literary tourist want? Here’s what:
- To browse well-stocked atmospheric used/antiquarian bookshops, and connect with knowledgeable owners and fellow book lovers.
- To relax at ‘destination’ type independent bookstores. To enjoy a book, a coffee, a conversation
- To attend stimulating author reading events and lectures, panel talks, writers and film festivals
- To go to professional theatre productions
- To visit authentic literary locales/library exhibitions/museums/landmarks.
- To learn from the experts, from smart, enthusiastic, well-versed tour guides and docents.
- To participate in writing or book arts workshops
- To get out on literary walking tours
…all this and more, over and above a desire for good food, quiet hotel rooms, comfy beds and peaceful places where one can read and think.
By fostering, funding and encouraging these kind of experiences – and supporting local literary calendars and cultural magazines – cities will not only attract cultural/literary tourists, they’ll make themselves more interesting to their own inhabitants.
Businesses should be concerned about Return on Investment. Cities should be too, but their ultimate concern isn’t profit, it’s quality of life. How can they make things better for their citizens. What are cities here for? Ultimately, to help people lead happier more fulfilling lives. For, after the roads have been cleaned, the sewers inspected, the police and firemen equipped, isn’t it about enjoying yourself?
If this is the case, then shouldn’t it be about preserving what has value – buildings, landmarks, neighbourhoods, evidence of accomplishments from the past – and stimulating creative output and exchange in the present, both for the enjoyment of tourists, and for the lasting benefit of existing residents?
By incorporating, stimulating and celebrating ‘the imagination,’ cities, as they develop, will not only attract more visitors, they’ll bring in creative, imaginative people who want to get involved in urban life – exactly the kind of people that Christopher Forbes, Vice Chairman of Forbes, Inc. is after:
“The success of my family’s business” says Forbes, “ depends on finding and cultivating a creative and innovative workforce. I have witnessed firsthand the power of the arts in building these business skills. When we participate personally in the arts, we strengthen our ‘creativity muscles,’ which makes us not just a better ceramicist or chorus member, but a more creative worker—better able to identify challenges and innovative business solutions. This is one reason why the arts remain an important part of my personal and corporate philanthropy.”
Local culture is not just about ROI, or attracting tourists or making money. It’s about making places more interesting – preserving and celebrating what has true value. The return is a richer more livable city. While delivering exactly the kind of intellectual and emotional experiences that research identifies as being important to so many of us, exploring and sharing local culture helps us (at the fear of sounding a tad precious here) to discover who we are.
In all the articles on tourism marketing that I’ve read recently, ‘authentic’ is the word that has appeared most often. There’s a reason for this. People – unless they’re going to Disney – don’t want fake, they want real. The real thing. The first edition, the original manuscript, the actual desk, the feather pen. Without these important source materials we risk bastardizing culture, imposing cheap experiences that grate rather than sooth, debase rather than celebrate.
Getting to ‘authentic’ requires serious study of the past, intelligent acquisition and sympathetic presentation. Lawrence Lande, one of Canada’s all-time great book collectors, in his Adventures in Collecting (a beautiful book designed by Robert R. Reid in 1975) writes about how important source materials are to the process of learning about and understanding history. Addressing a room full of McGill University professors, he said:
“ … I would try to harness as much of the source material that I could lay my hands on which McGill possesses in her libraries and museums. For example, I would attempt to set up a room with furnishings from the time of Confederation in Canada, including the pictures on the walls and the journals of the day on the table. I would involve my students with the poetry and the literature that was read at the time and the popular music of the day; the clothing that was worn; the medical and social practices and the problems of the day, including alcoholism; and even the methods of transportation and so on ….”
By stimulating creative output, rediscovering and developing venues, and encouraging the collecting, curating and presenting of source materials, cities will not only evolve into better more livable places, they’ll ‘authentically’ transform the lives of visitors and inhabitants alike.