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A sampling of folklife and cultural tourism projects in the U.S.

Case Study: Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative*

North Carolina Arts Council
Appalachian Region of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia
1998-Present (initial planning began in 1996)

The multi-state Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative spans North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Arts agencies in the three states were awarded a $225,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for economic development and cultural preservation in the counties that border the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other partners in this initiative include:

  • Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
  • Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College,
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,
  • North Carolina Division of Travel and Tourism,
  • North Carolina Department of Commerce,
  • Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association,
  • Tennessee Department of Tourism,
  • Tennessee State Parks,
  • Blue Ridge Parkway division of the National Park Service,
  • HandMade in America,
  • and the Cherokee National Forest.

The NEA funds were granted to the North Carolina Arts Council, and in turn sub-granted to the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association and the Virginia Humanities Council to administer project moneys in those two states. The NEA grant was more than matched with additional funding, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and American Express (in connection with the Blue Ridge Trail being designated North Carolina's Millennium Legacy Trail).

The most visible product of this initiative will be two tourism guidebooks highlighting a series of cultural trails, published by University of North Carolina Press. One guidebook will feature traditional Blue Ridge music in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The second will feature Cherokee arts and culture. Wayne Martin, Director of the Folklife Program of the North Carolina State Arts Council, says that Handmade in America's The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina [discussed in this report below] provided the prototype for the guidebooks. Martin remembers, "We saw that we could take that concept and apply it to a variety of cultural forms in the region. We realized that the art forms we wanted to feature were continuous along state lines, so invited a consortium of agencies, including those from neighboring Virginia and Tennessee, to join us.”

Working task forces were established early in the project. Several folklorists conducted research for the project for over a year. Over a dozen public meetings were held in communities across the region to discuss the initiative. One request was repeated at a number of these public meetings around the state. Local people, who were generally favorable to the project, wanted to see an education component added. "A number of communities," Martin recalls, "wanted us to help them present the music not only to tourists but also to their children and grandchildren. They made the point, too, that nurturing these traditions, which were often endangered, was important to the long-term economic future of the initiative we were proposing."

As a result of positive word spread about the project, the North Carolina Arts Council Folklife Program is now working with the School of Education at the University of North Carolina on a related program to use folk music to teach state-mandated curriculum in schools in the region.

Martin is especially pleased that the initiative is focusing existing cultural assets by foregrounding the active, living culture of the region rather than creating specialty products for tourist consumption. Toward this end, the traditional music guidebook will lead visitors to over 120 community performance venues throughout the region. These venues, located through exhaustive field research, include stores, restaurants, hometown "opries," fiddler's conventions, and many other public places and events, but do not include the private and semi-private gatherings which community members made clear should not be listed in the guidebook. Background essays will give visitors "a sense of how these communities preserve and present their music."

Developing the Cherokee guidebook, Martin remembers, involved a process of "developing trust between the tribe and other community residents of North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee." Tribal support came once it saw that the project attempted to "peel away a little bit of that veneer of conventional tourism that has existed for so long there and reveal traditions that are more about the people who live there, rather than what is presented on the strip or in the gaming places." The guidebook will present these resources through the words and viewpoints of the Cherokee. The initiative is now working toward ensuring that the Cherokee viewpoint will be foregrounded in the tourist experience of place as well by finding ways to increase the presence of Cherokees at the sites where Cherokee art is sold.

Reception from tourist professionals to date has been very positive, as "people are recognizing that it's a tremendous asset to have people in the picture." However, state funds for tourism, which are already tied up in promoting golf, beaches, and more standard tourist fare, have not been contributed toward this project as yet. Also, money, which is dedicated to promoting heritage tourism around the state, often goes to promote larger cultural attractions such as the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville or institutions like the North Carolina Museum of Art. Martin believes that some people in the state still hold social and class attitudes that cause them to view traditional music as "low class." Accompanying this attitude is ambivalence about presenting North Carolina's traditional culture to visitors.

One of the most difficult things to argue for with tourism professionals has been the need for in-depth research. Martin notes that, "Many tourism professionals' idea of making a 'resource inventory' is to have one meeting and take everyone's ideas down on a flip-chart. They just can't imagine what we could possibly be doing employing several people in the field for over a year." Luckily, having raised the money, Martin was in the position to fund the research, and he is hoping that tourism professionals will be able to see the worth of his investment in the finished guidebooks. Martin is hoping to find additional moneys at this point in the project to conduct baseline economic impact studies because he now realizes that without these, he will not be able to prove significant economic impact down the line.

As the guidebooks are being developed, a number of "worst-case-scenario" possibilities have been raised as potential unintended outcomes of the project. For example, community ownership is what has kept many of these venues rooted in local cultures. One worry is that the economic success these guidebooks might bring to local venues might also make them attractive to outside investors, thus inadvertently causing a loss of local control over community culture. Another fear is that cultural clashes may occur when the guidebook leads a variety of tourists into areas of the region not accustomed to diversity.

While Martin thinks it is important to anticipate any potential problems in advance so as to mitigate them, he also says, "I refuse to be paralyzed by this fear of 'what if, what if, what if.' I think we have to have faith that local people will find venues for their music, and the community, with the help of cultural specialists if necessary, can deal effectively with problems which might arise."

The initiative is putting partnerships into place around the region specifically to handle issues locally, and he would also like to make specialists available when needed to help local people work through any new challenges brought about by increased visitorship. Martin also wants to fund conferences for individuals from the 120 music trail venues across the two states to discuss issues and develop collective strategies for handling them.

Martin adds that the musicians and venues included in the guidebook are very supportive of it. "This is not the first and only time our work has affected traditional culture. Tourism has used these traditions to promote the region for years. This initiative, at least, is allowing communities to have control of the way that they present themselves and their traditions."

Martin has found that working within the field of heritage tourism "puts you in touch with partners you've never worked with before." He hopes such new relationships will allow folklorists to "bring the values of our field to tourism projects.

Folklife Sampling Home
Report and Methods

Case Studies

A1. Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area
A3. South Bronx Latin Music Tour

B1. Washington Heritage Tours
B2. Sanpete County, Utah Audio Tour and Booklet

C1. Tennessee Overhill Heritage Project
C2. Kentucky Route 23 Heritage Corridor Project
C3. Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative
C4. "Come See What's Cooking in Hancock County"

D1. Cowboy Poetry Gathering
D2. Louisiana Folklife Festival

E1. The Portland Oregon Visitors Association
E2. "Tours and Detours"

F1. The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina Guidebook
F2. Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance Gathering/Wabanaki Cultural Guide

G1. South Carolina Heritage Corridor Tourism Projects
G2. Delmarva Folklife Initiative