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

Current Trends in Folklife and Cultural Tourism

The most important single trend in folklife and cultural tourism development in recent years has been the increased focus on collaboration and partnerships. This development is inevitable, according to Betsy Peterson, Program Director for the Fund For Folk Culture, who recently launched "Partnerships in Local Cultures: Building Assets through Cultural Traditions," a cultural tourism grant program in partnership with the National Association of Development Organizations. Peterson notes that the "kinds of activities these projects involve necessitate bringing many different types of expertise to the table. Cultural tourism is simply not going to happen without the involvement of multiple sectors within a locale or a region."

There has also been a growing acknowledgment of the need to consider the potential impacts of heritage tourism on local cultures and communities before beginning projects. Folklorist Roby Cogswell summed up this sentiment in the article, “Doing Right by the Local Folks:” "If ever there was equal promise for success or disaster—or a need for careful planning—cultural tourism presents it." Cultural specialists commonly address the following concerns:

  • the possibility that profits will flow out of communities as outside developers exploit local cultural resources;
  • the boom-and-bust cycles which can characterize poorly planned tourism developments;
  • the ways culture changes when packaged for outside consumption;
  • and the relatively low wages offered for many of the jobs tourism creates.

Community involvement in planning and development of cultural tourism projects has become accepted practice within cultural heritage planning. Most professionals in this field agree with heritage planner Tom Gallaher, Jr.'s statement in a recent report on heritage development: "Sustainability in local heritage development depends upon high levels of community awareness, understanding and endorsement." Increasingly, varying sectors of the community in a given locale are included in planning, and there is a growing acknowledgment that field research by folklorists and anthropologists may be helpful in this process. However, the extent and depth of community involvement and planning varies widely from project to project.

Partly in response to the wishes of local community groups and partly in response to market demand for first-person, unmediated cultural experiences, there has been an increased inclusion of local voices in cultural heritage interpretation. This trend is evidenced in the growing number of guided tours led by individuals from within communities and the inclusion of local commentary and narration on audio tours. Related to this trend has been the increase in community-initiated tourism ventures. Sometimes economically motivated and sometimes established primarily or at least partially from within ethnic-specific tourism networks, these grassroots resources are increasingly being acknowledged and marketed through mainstream tourism networks.

In recent years the cultural heritage planning field has seen an increasing awareness of the need to shield certain local cultural areas from tourist visitation to preserve traditions and quality of life for local inhabitants. This trend is evidenced in the development of at least one non-invasive tourism product, the audio driving tour, which allows visitors to experience private traditions without intruding on private life. There has also been a growing willingness on the part of tourism and heritage professionals to pursue the low-impact tourism activities appropriate to most folklife-related cultural tourism.

Cultural heritage planner Elizabeth Watson has observed this trend developing in rural areas in particular, as local officials realize that small-scale tourism initiatives often hold the most hope for sustainable development in rural areas. Watson notes as well, however, that there has been a corresponding growth of concern on all sides about the lack of data measuring economic impact of these low-impact projects, which is very difficult to track.

Many community-focused tourism initiatives involving folk arts, folk artists, and folklorists are springing up around the United States. This report attempts to capture the ideas and practices now being developed through this groundswell of activity.

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