Photos taken at the Festival of Kentucky Folklife, which this year will have a focus on the Route 23 corridor. (Photos courtesy of the Kentucky Folklife Program.)
How do you define cultural tourism? There is a national debate taking place about a new kind of tourism that provides a personal, authentic experience for the burgeoning baby-boomer market. Some think that cultural tourism refers only to the economic benefit derived from the "high arts" such as museums, ballet, opera and symphony. Others recognize that culture is germane to everyone, from rural storytellers to urban junkyard percussionists. At the same time, these kinds of cultural assets are often associated with heritage tourism because a community's culture can be considered "living history." Heritage tourism is sometimes narrowly defined as involving historical sites, architecture and genealogy as its key components. Hybrid terms like cultural/heritage tourism try to encompass the whole package.
The Kentucky Arts Council (KAC) takes its cues on cultural/heritage tourism from the communities with which it works in developing their projects. In eastern Kentucky, the arts council is actively engaged with eight counties along Route 23 in creating a cultural tourism plan that will be a springboard for economic, community and cultural development.
"Our experience with the Route 23 corridor has shown us that cultural tourism can be a great catalyst for building arts organizations, arts events and opportunities for artists and craftspeople, not just to draw tourists, but also to benefit the local folk who live there year round," says Gerri Combs, KAC executive director.
The Product is in the People
The beauty of cultural tourism is that the product is already there. It exists in the hands of the people who create the wonderful crafts; it is in the voices of the a cappella gospel singers and the fingers of the banjo pickers. However, people sometimes fail to recognize that culture is in their own backyard. This was the first issue confronted by Judy Sizemore, coordinator of the Route 23 Corridor Project.
"People in eastern Kentucky are very aware of their heritage, but have often come to think of themselves as culturally deprived because they don't have access to urban cultural centers," says Sizemore. "Last year I had a group of Japanese school teachers visiting my county. One evening they were playing with a group of local children. One of the boys asked a teacher why they had come to Jackson County. The teacher said he wanted to learn about our culture. The child quickly responded, 'Why did you come here? We ain't got no culture.'"
Ironically, the Route 23 region was chosen for this project because of its concentration of musical heritage and talent, making it distinct from surrounding counties. Many country music stars, for instance, come from this area and are recognized by another tourism initiative, the Country Music Highway. Although the culture in the northern half of the region varies from that in the southern half, this area of Appalachia has many common bonds--strong traditions, family ties, crafts, music, dance, storytelling, Appalachian literature and, most of all, an abiding sense of place.
For Sizemore, the challenge was to open the eyes of the local people. She says, "I'm trying to get people to realize that they do have a culture, a wonderful culture, but the word has a lot of baggage here. People get excited and enthusiastic when you speak of heritage, but tend to be a little defensive when you speak of culture. I'm trying to bridge that gap by using the dual terminology, cultural/heritage tourism."
". . . cultural tourism can be a great catalyst for building arts organizations, arts events and opportunities for artists and craftspeople, not just to draw tourists, but also to benefit the local folk who live there year round."
To assist these communities in rediscovering their cultural resources, Sizemore brought people together to define the vision of the Route 23 Corridor Project, along with representatives of the Education, Arts and Humanities Cabinet and other state agencies and organizations. She organized meetings in each of the counties, resulting in grassroots partnerships among artists, musicians, tourism practitioners, local government officials, church leaders, teachers, community-based arts organizations, historical societies and economic development offices.
After a year of meetings, the eight counties have taken over the process. They meet each month and are preparing an application to establish themselves as a regional arts council. In addition, each county is applying to the Kentucky Arts Council for a community arts development grant. There are also plans underway to create a website and arts marketing network along the corridor, a video highlighting the attractions and potential of each county, and an audio driving tour. An even more substantial outcome of the KAC's efforts is that in the course of sprucing up their region for visitors, local residents met new neighbors and rediscovered cultural assets they had overlooked in the past.
The Kentucky Arts Council made it possible for community members to exchange ideas and strategies for implementing their vision, completing the first phase of the project. The various communities have taken ownership of the project and will shape its future, one that reflects their values and coincides with the cultural/heritage visitor's thirst for human stories and places--filled with swinging bridges, old barns, arts and crafts, country music and family history. So whether you call it cultural tourism, heritage tourism or cultural/heritage tourism, the end results are the same: More than simply being an economic or marketing tool to revitalize an area, cultural/heritage tourism plays an important part in reweaving the fabric of community life.
Tourism is the state's third largest industry and second largest employer. Cultural tourism is part of the master plans of two state cabinets: Economic Development and Tourism Development.
Route 23 Corridor Partners
Kentucky Arts Council, Kentucky Historical Society and Oral History Commission, Kentucky Educational Television, Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, Kentucky Craft Marketing Program, Kentucky Department of Travel Development, Kentucky Environmental Education and the Kentucky Folklife Program