72 CULTURE IS STILL TOURISM’S BEST FRIEND – Contributions by Claude Origet du Cluzeau

There are two kinds of cultural tourists: those who travel with a cultural motivation, for both self-learning and enjoyment, and those who travel for other purposes but include, during their journey, a cultural sequence that they will be happy to talk about on their way back: we all know those tourists who spent a week on a beach but sent us a postcard of the local castle. Thus, culture always plays an overwhelming role in the field of tourism. However, destinations are not always aware of this; they more or less fear it as cultural heritage and events weigh heavily on public finances, at least in Europe. Having worked on over 200 cases of tourism development, we have had to prove to destination managers the indirect but substantial benefit of cultural initiatives and shape the cultural tourism supply of the place, which always proved beneficial raising through the extension of the tourism season and raising of turnover in local tourism enterprises.

There was a time, in the early days of tourism, when talking about cultural tourism was just a pleonasm: Until the 1950s, travelling mostly meant exploring another place – heritage, arts, local populations, sceneries, customs, traditions and being confronted with some other culture, close or distant, sometimes exotic. Little by little, the purpose of travelling meant snow, beach, health, cruise, bus journeys and stays, a kind of tourism where the activity provided by the destination was far more important than its name and specific features: regarding what some holiday-makers were expecting, some destinations were more or less interchangeable, as long as they could provide the desired activity (including farniente – Italian for idleness). The mass tourism market has developed into a huge diversification of expectations and motives for travel. Many brands took advantage of this situation: Club Med was -and is still- ‘the destination’ on its own; Club Med is the traveller’s choice as its holiday villages, and their cost, holiday villages, and their cost are far more important than their actual location. It is the same with some well-known tour operators like Kuoni, with bus trip organizers enjoying loyal clients, same with thermal chains for which the pathology of the cure prevailed in the choice, and the same with rental companies in the Alps that can send their clients to one or another mountain resort, according to what they have on stock. This is how, throughout the 50s-80s, many destinations emerged on the tourism market and were turned into commonplaces. Many vacationers would visit some tourist places, hardly knowing their local name and nothing about their identity.

Of course, for some quite unknown destinations, it became an advantage to be, in the view of the public at large, at least located ‘in the Alps’ or ‘on the Mediterranean coast’ and, as such, many gained recognition, and some became famous within the tourism market. The challenge for the poorly known destinations launched on the tourism market only through a brand that was not theirs was to gain recognition through their real name. With the surge of so many new places on the tourism market,  harsh and unavoidable competition occurred among destinations because, after the 1980s, the supply became slightly larger than the solvent demand. Since the 1980s, every year has witnessed an ever-growing number of destinations worldwide and harsh competition or rivalry, often triggered by prices. For instance, as soon as some low-cost air transportation proposed it, many British chose the Bulgarian Balkans for their snow vacations instead of the Alps. In the 1990s, the challenge for the well-known ‘Yugoslavian coast and islands’ was to become Croatian destinations, with resorts like Omis or Baska under the leading cultural image of Dubrovnik.

Gaining identity and recognition in the tourism market

Unidentified or hardly identified (where on the map ?) makes it difficult to communicate and advertise. For their communication, these hardly identified places need a unique story to tell, and the best one relies on the local culture: history of the place, tangible and intangible heritage, local attractions, and ongoing events. As an adviser for many places – as small as a village or as big as a whole country – I can confirm that there is no other way of being identified positively and in the long run in the tourism market. This is the starting point of a process that may be pretty easy when the cultural assets of the destination are obvious and easy to show and explain to a visitor, but it may also be very tricky. Some reveal and display their story to foreigners, which makes it difficult for the local authorities to convince them of the advantages of the process, both in terms of economics and reputation. Some locals resent revealing and displaying their stories to foreigners, making it difficult for the local authorities to convince them of the advantages of the process, both in terms of economics and reputation. Still, it often ends up with a feeling of self-esteem and pride for those locals. In some places, the local culture is difficult to display: for instance, when a harbour city had actively participated, in the past, in the slavery trade; or when the local culture is so very ‘local’ and secluded: for instance, in a village in French Brittany, the main cultural feature consists of traditional tales to be told only in the regional language, which of course no visitor can understand. In some other places, the local culture is so poor that new cultural features have to be ‘imported’; this was, for instance, the case of Marciac (a rural area in South West of France), where a Jazz Festival – quite American – took place over 40 years ago and enjoys now world recognition: the jazz culture is now so deeply rooted in Marciac that all the young people there play jazz throughout the year and many jazz classes take place. This ‘cultural import’ happened in many mountain resorts primarily dedicated to snow and trekking activities.

Good fortune and difficulties of the process

Identifying a local culture with features that are understandable and open to visitors can take time. There is no unique and strict process, but only guidelines: question the local story and how it belongs to the wider history (of the region, the country), and make a careful inventory of what remains visible, and especially what is unique. After these preliminary steps, the components must be combined to create a unique story for an outside audience; images, descriptions, and comments must follow up.

This approach never fails:  it proved, throughout the years, to be both strong and unlimited because there are always some other cultural assets to exploit. ‘Tangible and intangible culture determines the identity and the continuity of a community’ says Münsters (2023, p.23). When started, the quest for cultural identity, whatever aspect it may tackle, creates an emulation among locals, happy to find out the place’s past and grant it a contemporary meaning. This may develop through academic associations, escape games, or school exercises.

In some places, the process is pretty tricky. Let’s take the example of Maurice Island in the Indian Ocean. Maurice has been a fine tropical destination for over 50 years (with an exceptional quality of hospitality)  where tourism represents 13% of GDP, but, little by little, in the eyes of European tourists, Maurice has endured competitors such as Seychelles and Maldives. So, Maurice tried to gain recognition through some strong cultural features. But the story of Maurice made it difficult to point out any of those as the country had been occupied by three different occupying countries (Netherlands, France, and Great Britain), which didn’t leave any major piece of heritage; furthermore, local communities in Maurice have different religions and customs, which ends up in modest community buildings. Therefore, besides its beautiful sceneries, Maurice does what destinations with no major cultural features do: it tries to gain specific recognition through local cooking and music, which is, of course, better than nothing, but turns out to be only a weak attraction and therefore generates weak fame, not based on a strong identity. This is the strategy of many destinations with poor cultural features that are difficult to grasp: point out cooking and/or rely on local or ‘imported’ cultural events.

All these efforts to show the visitors a genuine local culture is fruitful. It sheds a specific and unrivalled message to the tourist. ‘It’s here and nowhere else’. Of course, it is a promise that must be kept: the visitor must be able to check it and learn more. This ‘storytelling’ is like a promise; its components must be fully available: places and sites widely open to the public, authenticity, and quality. The nice thing about this process is that, when well documented and well inserted in the communication and marketing of the destination, it works. It pulls out the commonplace destination from its touristic anonymity. And it may generate a continuous cultural improvement of the place. Another nice thing about it is that it is unlimited: contemporary initiatives may unveil pieces of heritage. Street art? Musical and/or play or film events or festivals? Art competitions? The shooting of films and series?

In this respect, one of the oldest examples in Europe is the city of Nice/Côte d’Azur/France, a well-known resort in the 1900s as a ‘place to be’ to avoid spending winter in London or Paris. Still, many older people retire there for the same reason. Fifty years later, the winter season had moved to the Alps, and Nice became only one of the numerous beaches on the Côte d’Azur. Its tourism facilities and places of accommodation were developed for this purpose, generating a wide but summer-only season. Furthermore, it soon appeared that some other beach resorts on this coast were gaining market share thanks to their specific attractions: Cannes with its film festival, Monaco with the glamour of its princes, and smaller places with the intimacy that Nice, the big city, could not claim. Facing this double challenge – a short tourism period and growing competition from neighbouring destinations, Nice decided to exploit its cultural resources, which proved to be numerous and varied: many artists during the 20th century – like Matisse – found inspiration there, some wealthy people like Ephrussi de Rothschild had built magnificent villas that were transformed into museums, a botanical garden was created, and numerous cultural events took place, besides the well-known Corso Fleuri (a famous flower parade in February). Culture has triggered a tourism renaissance in Nice as a year-long venue.

It is a win-win process but with an unpredicted competition

A cultural process, when seriously led, is always fruitful: for the locals, of course, and for tourism: the place becomes an all-year-round venue; generally, the day expenses of the tourists are higher, but if the visitors come only for cultural purposes, their stay is shorter; the win-win case is when the place can supply a mix of both beach or snow activities with cultural sequences: then the stays are longer. Barcelona is a good example of this.

There is every reason to strengthen the cultural resources of a place, and not only for the sake of tourism development: raise international reputation, become attractive to some possible new residents, pride for the locals (that may end up in votes in favour of those who initiated it!). But, by now, the cultural wave is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. As Wil Münster (2023, p. 164) states, since the 1990s, there has been a huge and continuous increase of cultural supply in the world, together with a growing number of UNESCO-labelled sites (by now, 972  out of 1200 are cultural or mixed). The nice thing about it is that the number of items belonging to the cultural sector is growing, particularly with the introduction of intangible items; thanks to anthropology, the meaning of ‘culture’ has widened, and many human accomplishments are now considered arts: handicrafts, fashion, land-art, street-art, contemporary dances. Meanwhile, the beginning of our 21st century is witnessing a huge and growing number of museums and derelicts (for example, railway stations and industrial wastelands) transformed into cultural venues, new architectural features and creations. Amazingly, it is happening worldwide, even in the most unexpected places. For instance, in Saudia Arabia there, the DMOs (Destination Management Organizers) knew that the Saudi destination needed another identity than Mecca (where non-Muslim visitors would not be welcome), so they worked on a huge unknown but majestic archaeological site called AlUla, in the desert, where, before building hotels and other tourism facilities, they worked on historical artefacts of the place, restoring and making accessible its spectacular remains.

From cultural identity to the spirit of the place

Now that a growing number of destinations enjoy or are gaining a cultural dimension, this common feature doesn’t homogenize them. Besides their objective-specific features, what differentiates them is the scope and the strength of the visitor’s experience, which depends on the number and variety of visits and events during their stay. If the tourist’s first motivation was non-cultural (for example, visiting friends and relatives, beach, sports), then the cultural dimension of the place will only mean identity and differentiation; but if they came with a cultural motivation, then their experience will depend first on tangible components, such as the scope and the variety of the cultural supply – which are more or less in the hands of the ‘DMO’ – and on intangible personal components such as length of stay, the accompanying person(s), education, state of mind of the day and finally on their personal and unique perception of the place or event. In this respect, the ultimate experience of a cultural tourist would be to catch ‘the spirit of the place’.

Centuries ago, the spirit of the place used to be a genius protecting a place, and only a shaman could get in touch with him. Later, Lawrence Durrell, along with Greek with three books of his Deus Loci, demonstrated how the spirit of the place in Greece shaped the personality and mental structure of the Greeks, which shows that writers and poets can also communicate with the spirit of the place.

Nowadays, we have another view of the spirit of the place. According to ICOMOS (Conseil International des Monuments et des Sites), the spirit of a place is this special relationship dynamic between a visitor and both the tangible and intangible components of a place; this feeling conveys meaning, value, emotion, and mystery. For the French writer Stendhal, it meant once fainting with extasy when he discovered some frescos of San Croce Basilica in Florence, now known as the Stendhal Syndrome. An image of a place is far from translating any spirit of the place: it may appear only when facing the real dimensions of the place, its noise or silence, the temperature, the particular smell. And it also depends on the particular state of mind of the visitor.

Therefore, no tourism brochure or guidebook can promise to discover a place’s spirit. It is only ‘the icing on the cake’ which may or may not occur. It is far too complex to be mentioned beforehand. Nevertheless, it is the most providential concept of cultural tourism, the ultimate award of the visitor when history, legend, and arts are closely interwoven.

Therefore, from a place’s most basic cultural identity to the perception of its inner soul, culture fills the visitor’s experience for the sake of the best and lasting quality of the tourism industry.

Written by Claude Origet du Cluzeau, Paris, France.

Read Claude’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


Conseil International des Monuments et des Sites (n.d.). https://www.icomos.org/

Münsters, W. (2023). Théories et pratiques du tourisme culturel: une étude de modèles et de leurs applications. Gestion de la culture.



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