Heritage tourism: a fresh way to say "authenticity" without sounding like a broken record, while also getting to the heart of what many travelers actually mean when using that phrase.
Luong La’s family fled the communist regime in Vietnam in 1979. Now a father of three living in Santa Barbara, California, he and his wife decided they wanted to spend one of their family vacations bringing the kids back to his native country to learn about it.
So they spent a month on a heritage tourism trip to the Southeast Asian country to visit not just traditional tourist sites but also the places where he had grown up in the Mekong Delta.
“My husband thought that by seeing the places he had grown up in, the kids would have a better understanding of him,” said Luong’s wife, Michelle Robin La. “My husband’s extended family keeps their heritage alive in America with food, language and celebrations like the Lunar New Year. By traveling in Vietnam for a month we immersed the kids in the place these traditions came from.”
Their family trip to Vietnam is an example of heritage tourism, which The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as traveling to experience a place, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.
Heritage tourism sites can be as varied as a revitalized downtown or a Civil War trail. “For a number of years, the idea was to build interstates and get people to where they’re going and then people gradually began to realize they were missing out on something – authentic experiences,” said Carolyn Brackett with The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Cultural Heritage Program. “And that’s a word that we hear over and over that people want a feeling of authenticity, meaning they want a sense of place.”
As travelers became more interested in authentic experiences, communities and officials are taking notice, asking what they can do to share their story, Brackett said.
A 2013 national survey conducted by Mandala Research showed that 76 percent of all leisure travelers in the U.S. will take part in some sort of cultural or heritage activity while they are traveling, Brackett said. That translates to 130 million people.
Tourism boards and sites are taking note. In Oklahoma, the state’s Tourism and Recreation Department has released a guide and web portal about the state’s African-American history and heritage sites. The Texas Historical Commission has released a free 100-page guide showcasing the state’s Hispanic heritage sites.
Aside from well-known destinations like the Alamo, the Texas guide, which is organized by geographic regions and was released in May, includes off-the-beaten path sites as well, said Chris Florance, spokesman for the Texas Historical Commission.
“The Hispanic cultures have left their imprint on the state for 500 years, and it has impacted almost every aspect of Texas culture — certainly our history, architecture, music. It’s just such a vital and important part of our history and where we are today and where we’re going as a state,” he said.
The commission has also released a mobile app so visitors can access thematic tours, including one focused on African-American heritage sites in Texas.
“There’s an enormous interest in heritage tourism. It’s a really important part of Texas’ tourist economy,” he said, adding that an economic impact study found that about 10 percent of travel in Texas is related to cultural heritage.
Maresa Thompson has taken several trips based around cultural heritage, most notably a trip to Ireland and England to see stone formations and other ancient sites. Thompson’s ancestors were Queen Victoria’s Irish bodyguards, she said, and she describes herself as being more interested in museums, history and culture than in other types of sightseeing. Thompson’s grandfather emigrated from Czechoslovakia and she next hopes to take a trip to the region to learn more about that part of her family’s heritage.
“All travel enriches your life, but the contrived travel — the Vegas and the Disneyland and all of that — just doesn’t appeal to me as much as it does really thinking I have ancestors or people in my lineage who came and possibly could have stayed here before,” said Thompson, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is the creative director for Heritage Hotels & Resorts, a group of hotels that showcase New Mexico’s history, art and culture. “I think it’s just a deeper, holistic experience for travel.”
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Photo credit: This 2007 photo provided by Michelle Robin La shows her, rear left, with her husband Luong La and their three children at the Citadel in Hue, Vietnam. The family was taking part in a heritage trip to Vietnam, where Luong La grew up. Michelle Robin La / Associated Press