Cultural Tourism: Challenges and Opportunities: A Way Forward for Sustainable Tourism Development

By Anjali Caldera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2020
FT Cultural Tourism: Challenges and Opportunities: A Way Forward for Sustainable Tourism Development

By Anjali Caldera

Culture plays a vital role in tourism as it is one of the pull factors in a bid to attract tourists. With COVID-19 bringing global tourism to a standstill, millions of people have been seeking out cultural and travel experiences online.

Cultural tourism

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines cultural tourism as a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s essential motivation is to learn, discover, experience and consume the tangible and intangible cultural attractions/products in a tourism destination. 

These attractions/products encompass arts and architecture, historical and cultural heritage, culinary heritage, literature, music, creative industries and living cultures with their lifestyles, value systems, beliefs and traditions.

What Sri Lanka has to offer

Sri Lanka has a lot to offer when considering the definition of cultural tourism. The country is rich in arts and culture and its architecture connects with Buddhism and Hinduism; an heir of a rich history and a culture blended with all four religions and ethnic groups; an heir of an authentic cuisine; with over 90 per cent literacy rate, Sri Lanka has also inherited a rich literary background and history.

The Tourism Strategic Plan for 2017-2020 (TSP) clearly indicates that, ‘people’ play a vital role among the other sustainable goals: profit, partnership, peace and planet, in cultural tourism. Thus though people are not an attraction for other industries, they are an internal part of the tourism industry as they represent the culture of that particular destination. 

Furthermore, TSP revamps the culture based tourism concept through several projects. The plan includes the developing of an artisan and crafts incubator project to promote local creativity and new market prospects, subsidies or business training for new business ideas for traditional handicrafts and cottage industries, creating of community spaces at tourist attraction sites for information, interpretation, traditional craft markets, music, local arts, crafts and food. 

The President’s National Policy Framework ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ also highlights the fact that the tourism industry should be developed as an environmental and domestic culture-friendly industry with extensive people’s participation.

Challenges in promoting cultural tourism

The growing interest of visitors in genuine cultural experiences creates considerable opportunities while also posing complex challenges for the tourism industry. 

Thereby, UNWTO highlights that it is necessary to adopt and strengthen policies and governance models to promote as well as preserve cultural assets in a destination.

The recommendations outlined below have been prepared by the UNWTO Ethics, Culture and Social Responsibility Department in collaboration with its international partners with competence in culture and tourism in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.


i.     Improve information and data exchange between sectors

    The information flow between sectors is key to understanding the pandemic’s impact and devising effective responses. Specific data on the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on culture and tourism and solutions being put in place for cultural tourism survival will allow for more focused mitigation plans and to replicate good practices.

ii.     Launch innovative alliances

    With millions of people confined to their homes, this is an opportunity to develop and promote cultural experiences to a captive audience. During this digital transition, tourism and culture can forge alliances with tech companies and the private sector to improve access to capacity building programmes on culture and sustainable tourism, available online.

iii. Inspire a more sustainable future for cultural tourism

    The tourism and culture sectors must continue to work together to inspire a more sustainable future for cultural tourism. Marketing strategies in tourism are highlighting local cultural expressions not only to address new audiences, but also to inspire responsible travel. 

iv. Form a more resilient tourism and culture workforce  

    The industry professionals in both culture and tourism will require new skills for immediate actions and to take part in the recovery. Both sectors need to develop creative and inventive employment solutions to provide resilience to the workforce. The existing jobs in cultural tourism should be up skilled.

v. Strengthen governance structures for better coordination and information sharing

    This crisis is an outstanding opportunity to build cross-sectoral governance models between tourism and culture. These models should involve tech partners to build platforms and exchange forums to coordinate actions and share information. The platforms should imply effective communication, decision-making and agreements on setting the limits of tourism development involving cultural assets.  

vi. Attract new audiences

    The culture sector has the potential to create a new audience for tourism; especially children who wish to gain knowledge for educational purposes, youth who consider they have a role to play in responsible travelling and also senior citizens who are emotionally bound to cultural assets. The sector also has the potential to attract repeat visitors.

Existing possibilities

The UNWTO has also presented the possibilities to develop culture based tourism for a more sustainable industry.

i.     Shift from quantity towards quality

    Tourism success was traditionally measured by statistics highlighting visitors’ numbers, while qualitative indicators and visitors’ profile had less importance. Moving towards quality measurements would help to attract niche market segments; thus increase the revenue from tourism, ensuring conservation of cultural assets.

ii. Diversify cultural tourism products

    Destinations should address new and traditional markets and specific profiles of cultural visitors, whose interests and priorities may change after COVID-19. Some cultural gatherings may be temporarily replaced by alternative products as new scenarios unfold.

iii. Boost community participation and domestic tourism

    Engaging citizens’ platforms in recreating the local cultural offer will have a strategic social and economic importance. Local communities’ role will be essential in embracing first visitor flows, with precautions. Regaining domestic customer confidence will accelerate the first phase of cultural tourism recovery.

iv. Customise cultural offer for international visitors 

    Bringing back inbound cultural tourism will be more challenging before consumers decide to travel abroad. By customising their cultural offer, governments, destinations and cultural industries can have a more international outreach. International and cross-sectoral alliances will have a key role to play in this.

v.     Enable cultural tourism entrepreneurship and innovation

    Innovation in SMEs, cooperatives and creative economy will be needed for the recovery, especially for the empowerment of women, youth and indigenous peoples. COVID-19 will heavily affect these groups as their economy is often informal, notably in emerging destinations. Their livelihoods will improve by consolidating their market access and inclusion into the cultural tourism supply chain. The shift from informal towards formal economy will benefit many communities and destinations.

vi. Make cultural tourism accessible to all

    The accessibility of cultural facilities, products and services should be advanced to cater to the needs of persons with disabilities, seniors and families with small children, locals and visitors alike. 

Hence despite all the challenges, the tourism and culture sectors are facing an opportunity to create new partnerships and collaborations. They are bound to jointly reinvent and diversify tourism, attract new audiences, develop new skills and support the world’s transition to the new normal.

By Anjali Caldera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2020

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