Reflections on cultural tourism
In the height of the summer, when sun and beach tourism is one of the most popular types of holiday, and the coastlines of all destinations are populated by swathes of people seeking a good tan, a quick refreshing dip and a delicious mojito as the sun goes down, I think about a type of tourism that emerged at the end of the 1980s: Cultural tourism.
Conceived as an alternative form of tourism that embodies the consummation of the commercialisation of culture, where aspects of any culture are taken and sold on the touristic market.
Even today, I’m still surprised by the consideration that is made, by certain sectors, of the meaning of cultural tourism and the value it has in society. For some people, it’s no more than groups of tourists who want to visit a particular museum, monument or set of architectural ruins of centuries gone by. However, we mustn’t forget that cultural tourism goes far beyond this and must continue to do so.
In my humble opinion, the greatest value of cultural tourism lies in the understanding of the destination’s local culture and society being visited. And you can’t gain this understanding through simply visiting historical monuments or museums.
For true cultural tourists, learning that a palace dates back to the 15th century is of little use unless they are also told why the palace was constructed and the conditioning factors that allowed its existence in a particular time and place. Neither is it particularly useful for them to receive a meticulous artistic description of the gothic facade of a cathedral, if this isn’t then put into the context of the era and the artistic movement itself, along with the reason for its expansion and characteristics. For this reason, I insist that cultural tourism goes far deeper than what you see on the surface.
This type of tourism should also emphasise and pay special attention to the phenomenon of popular festivities. This shouldn’t be done, however, by merely showing the tourist the schedule of festivities. True cultural tourists aim to feel the value of the culture and the society in the destination that they are visiting, wanting to experience the main characteristics of the local holiday. However, they also want to gain an understanding of it, requiring an explanation that allows them to compare local cultural values with their own. A religious pilgrimage, for example, has a reason behind it as well as a set of specific vocabulary and rituals. To truly experience them, the cultural tourist must understand the value and the traditions that are intertwined with said celebration.
Cultural tourism is inclusive, such as culture itself: it includes museums and monuments, but also entails local cuisine, popular festivities, customs, literature, art and the environment. Territory (social, cultural and environmental) is crucial. Culture is developed within a particular territory; to understand it, you must understand the culture developed there.
True cultural tourism must emphasise the importance of understanding the societal and cultural territory, including aspects of experience tourism.
Tourists who are looking to gain an understanding of the local culture and enjoy a specific experience within it are more sensitive in this regard, acknowledging the importance of conserving local culture. Otherwise, the risk remains of the cultural resources attracting a generic form of tourism, which may end up being invasive.
The union of tourism, culture and heritage, when developed logically and coherently from an economic perspective; sustainably from an environmental perspective; and functional from a social perspective is crucial: not only for highlighting the value of the area’s historical heritage, but for its final conversion into one of the most powerful tools for achieving change in the current context, in which tourism, culture and soc