Cultural Tourism and Sustainable Development


The article examines the matter of cultural tourism and sustainable development. Culture is a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group. It encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, values systems, traditions and beliefs. Positive effects as well as negative effects are being examined. The methodology selected is the case study. The author presents two case studies from Izmir (Smyrna) and Hong Kong. The conclusions summarize that during the last decades, the movement of sustainability has come to light affecting all aspects of human activity and drifting cultural tourism industry as well.

Keywords: cultural tourism, heritage, sustainability , economic sustainability, cultural development                    


As the ancient cynic philosopher Antisthenes said, ”the investigation of the meaning of words is the beginning of education” (ἀρχὴ παιδεύσεως ἡ τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐπίσκεψις). Having this in mind, I would like to begin the quest of the present essay seeking the meaning of ”cultural tourism”, even though as McKercher and Du Cros [3] has already observed it ”…is actually very difficult to answer because there are almost as many definitions… of cultural tourism as there are cultural tourists”. I will carefully highlight the two most well-documented and conflicting opinions, before I continue to a more detailed analysis of its positive aspects and drawbacks.

Tourism as a general term has not only a lengthy history starting from the ancient travelers, continuing to medieval traders and culminating to 20th century tourists, but also a truly wide variety of types. A non-negligible category of tourism is known as ”cultural tourism”.  According to the World Tourism Organization, cultural tourism represents the 37% of the whole global tourism, and the wide-spread cultural tourism industry grows at the rate of 15% each year. But is this really accurate? And who do really call themselves ”cultural tourists”? Which is their motive power? Where do they prefer to go? And finally, does the so-called “cultural tourism” really exist, or there is just only an industry with no substance?

The actual difficulty on giving a definition in cultural tourism lies to the first component of it, namely ”culture” and its heritage. However, due to the limit in the size of this essay, I will embrace the circumscription of culture and cultural heritage which is formally given by UNESCO.

Culture is a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group. It encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, values systems, traditions and beliefs.

The term cultural heritage encompasses several main categories of heritage:

·         Tangible cultural heritage:

1.       movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)

2.       immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites, and so on)

3.       underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, underwater ruins and cities)

·         Intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions, performing arts, rituals


McIntosh and Goeldner [30] consider cultural tourism as comprising “all aspects of travel, whereby travelers learn about the history and heritage of others or about their contemporary ways of life or thought”. The “spirit” of this broad definition has been accepted by two of the most respected organizations in this specific domain, ICOMOS and World Tourism Organization. The same point of view on that issue is supported by Stebbins [31] who claims that “Cultural tourism is a genre of special interest tourism based on the search for and participation in new and deep cultural experiences, whether aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, or psychological”. The interpretation of these definitions is that the tourist/traveler will visit a foreign area in order to achieve his own personal aspirations and more specifically, as Richards [23] said, cultural tourism is ‘the movement of persons to cultural attractions away from their normal place of residence, with the intention to gather new information and experiences to satisfy their cultural needs’.

Another perspective on that topic is that of Silberberg’s [32], who suggested a proposal more practical and useful for research measurements, free of all the complex ”intentions”. He argues that the cultural tourism ‘visits by persons from outside the host community motivated wholly or in part by interest in the historical artistic, scientific or lifestyle/heritage offerings of a community, region, group or institution’.

My firm conviction is that it is elusive to solve the problem of definition, and it is sincerely difficult to choose between the aforementioned contradictory opinions. I do believe though, that it is on the tourist’s will to search any kind of new experiences during their visits, a factor that we should not  underestimate. Nevertheless, whatever definition we give for cultural tourism, there is only one fact: it exists, it will play an ever increasing role in the global economic reality and will significantly affect our daily lives.

  • Cultural tourism: a double appear axe

All over the world, tourism is considered a tool useful for economic growth, and in some countries -such as Greece/Hellas- is valuated as ”heavy industry”, the main source for revenues in order to raise the total amount of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Until now, no research has proved that citizens deny the worth of tourism and, except of some possible negative aspects that it could bring, they support a more expansionist policy of their country in this economic domain with no serious additional signs.

 Contribution to GDP: 16,5%

Participation in Employment: 18,4%

 Employees: 758.300

 International Tourist Receipts: 10,5 billion euro

 International Tourist Arrivals: 16,4 millions euro

 Average per Capita Cost: 639 euro

 European Market Share: 3,3%

 World Market Share: 1,7%

                                    Table 1: Key figures of tourism in Greece, 2011 [33]


One of the main pillars of tourism is the one we have already defined as ”cultural tourism”. Indeed, it is no coincidental that culture has become a product of tourist industry. As far as it concerns the modern times, after World War II, there is an interest on culture which is increasing worldwide. At first, citizens of the developed countries of West – the main body of the first touristic wave- traveled in order to explore the great artistic creations of humankind and, of course, any place with extraordinary natural beauty [1]. Later on, as the economic background of the tourists widened, this new type of tourists tried to find new experiences in their travels, while today their aspiration is to experience the culture an the habits of the indigenous [11].

So, culture as a ”product” is forced to break apart its constituent parts. But culture has a crucial difference versus other typical products. It is a holistic view of life and any effort to dismember it is at the same time dangerous both for the indigenous people and the tourists [4].

2.1. Positive impacts

With regard to some positive effects of cultural tourism, few common tendencies were reported throughout some case studies at universal scale. The most obvious positive consequence as a result of the existence of the cultural tourism is the economic growth of any specific area or of the country as a whole. Generally, we live in times in which societies struggle with the idea of commercial use of goods that hadn’t this kind of use before. One of these controversial factors is culture too. Except for the obvious drawbacks of commercialization, there is no country with high cultural tourism industry from which its people haven’t been benefited [1]. Cultural tourism has the undivided support of the local citizens according to all the case studies I will report below. It’s a well know fact in the aforementioned areas that cultural tourism creates job opportunities and helps the growth of numerous sectors of the local and country’s economy  if no relevant stakeholders are excluded [14].

However, even though the economic development of a region is important, the main role of the cultural tourism lies in the fact that it helps the conservation of the existing monuments and artifacts and the revival of old and possibly forgotten traditional practices (jobs, festivals etc.). This could be achieved through two ways. Either it happens because the interest of the tourists is translated to economic revenues which are able -and destined- to help the protection of the local sightseeing, or the residents are being awarded for the importance of these monuments and traditions. Without the contribution of the cultural tourism, maybe the local culture -from sites and monuments with outstanding universal value to unique celebrations of a local deity- could be worn, damaged or overlooked as insignificant buildings or unimportant events in the process of the continuing evolution of a uniform global culture in the frames of the expansion of westernization. It plays a crucial role to the restoration, conservation and survival of tangible and intangible heritage worldwide.

Last but not least, there is the advantage of the accelerated process of democratization and social upgrading of some marginal social groups in countries where the human rights are not self-evident and same for all.  Cultural tourism is a “full-time job” and, most of the times, it needs all the possible manpower a society can give. It is an aftermath that no discrimination could exist in order to maximize the benefits. Low-class men, women and even teenagers gain social and political rights through their new economic status. This is not something new, but has happened again in the Industrial Revolution. Maybe, it’s a good opportunity for the citizens of countries which have not been affected by the results of the Industrial Revolution to achieve some goals through cultural tourism. I am specifically mentioned to the cultural tourism, because the profile of the cultural tourists is a man/woman who is educated and has a good financial standing. Namely, cultural tourists are potential models for the indigenous.However, all the previous positive affects should be seen from the perspective of the rational use elsewhere they could have the exact opposite consequences, as we will see later on [5].

2.2. Negative impacts

Every single thinglike a coin, has two sides. What we are going to see is related to our motivations. So, irrational utter of the products of cultural tourism leads to their misuse and their devaluation, or even in some cases their destruction.

The first problem which rises from an unorganized local tourism industry is the unreliable expectations for the future incomes. This leads to the construction of unplanned infrastructures without forecasting the real amount of the visitors. In cases where the expectations of the stakeholders are much higher, people invest great amounts to useless infrastructures and the final result isn’t the economic growth of the region, but its economic decline. On the other hand, in some places prevail pessimistic views (or just nonchalance) resulting to insufficient infrastructures. In such situations, lots of environmental issues come to the surface, like the exhaustion of water resources, air and noise pollution and disturbance of natural environments. As well, the economic sustainability is not at a better state. Visitors -mainly the ones with a good economic background- seem to avoid travelling to such places, which are finally visited by the  low-spender tourists [13].

However, if we search it further, we discover a more dangerous impact of the cultural tourism which is able to deteriorate the physiognomy and the substance of the local culture. This is not something different than the commodification. This comes from the fact that the relevant stakeholders see local culture only as a means for economic exploitation, with no concern for the consequences to their ”products”. Those stakeholders, not interested in the local tradition, try to present an ideal image of it, withdrawing the elements that they consider unattractive to the visitors and create a new ”tradition”, a westernized model of what their tradition should look like. This tendency negatively influence the locals’ psychology and self-esteem, as they start to misjudge and underestimate their tradition and probably  reject it by trying to appropriate and internalize foreign lifestyles, which may seem more advanced than theirs. Natives gradually lose their identity and individuality in order to become citizens of the civilized world. But if someone wishes to become a citizen of the world, he should initially be a citizen of his/her country, so he conveys something valuable to the rest of the world, elsewhere the only thing he/she will succeed is to bring a commodificated culture [15] [16].

An additional question emanates from the little involvement of the locals in the first steps of the cultural tourism’s organization. The isolation of the natives from the process of taking decisions as long as their alienation, tends to turn them negative to changes or even to tourists. They appear behaviors of hostility, lack of hospitality and, sometimes, it leads to negative stereotypes and ethnocentrism. There is numerous examples of regions where after the establishment of the cultural tourism industry people, who were not asked to express their opinions on the upcoming economic transition of their lands, put the blame on the tourists for all their possible problems. It is significant that in such regions the rate of criminal actions is increased, and strong nationalist parties have a high position on the political, economical and social life . Despite the lack of truly scientific results that prove those facts and the complexity of this topic, it seems possible enough to have a logical base.

Nevertheless, it is not fair to misjudge cultural tourism by its negative impacts, but instead we should always have in mind its positive ones. It’s on our hands which of the two ”blades” we will choose to use.

2.3. Case studies

Below, I will demonstrate two opposite examples of how cultural tourism can affect the local community’s heritage that comes from Izmir (Smyrna) and Hong Kong.

Izmir is a historical city (e.g. one of the seven cities claimed to be the motherland of Homer in Greek antiquity) in the semi-developed country, Turkey. This ”pearl of Aegean” has many museums, long-living traditional practices (cuisine, dances etc.) and a respectable government funding. The Turkish state, recognizing Izmir’s potential for fast economic growth through cultural tourism, invests great amounts in order to  establish her as a good destination for those who want to explore the middle eastern civilizations. Izmir’s Greek past in conjunction with its  Anatolian present gives visitors a plethora of alternatives. It is noteworthy that the inhabitants had not been drifted by the “Sirens” of the easy profit and they never bargained away their way of life, but instead they tried to present it in every chance. As a consequence, Izmir is considered nowadays one of the most developed cities in Turkey, which combines both the local entrepreneurship and the capital of the international cultural industries, such as tradition and modernism. Even though planning problems appeared at the early stages of the cultural policy (e.g. mainly because of the Turkish government’s centralism), the unique environment, the -generally- descent presentation of the local tradition and the competitive prices helped to overcome them. That finally led to the protection and conservation of the local traditions and the unique identity of the region.

On the other hand, I will examine a specific touristic attraction of the city of Hong Kong, the famous Bun Festival. Taiping Qingjiao, as the locals call it, is a  traditional type of festival in the southern part of China with more than 200 years of life. The main characteristic of this traditional religious rite is that the local competitors race a 60-feet bamboo tower covered by steamed buns in order to snatch the bun of the top. Even though this festival had stopped for several years, it started again few years ago. However, a significant difference exists in these two periods: during the first period, the locals followed their own spiritual needs throughout the festival, in contrast with the present situation in which they hope not to have to beg their god, but to gain money from the tourists. The means and purposes of the festival’s revival is the definition of the selling out of a tradition [22].  Series of facts demonstrate this opinion and I will refer to the most significant so I will be able to prove the festival’s lost authenticity. In order to minimize the organizational cost, the stakeholders replaced the original bamboos with plastic ones, downgrading the aesthetical result. But the question is who they really are. The involved managers are foreign businessmen whose relationship with the local tradition is totally epidermal. The Chinese government approved the commercialization of the Cheung Chau’s tradition. They saw the festival as a channel for incomes and ignored the catastrophic consequences, such as the environmental degradation and the growing  hostility against the tourists by the inhabitants who felt marginalized in their island [21].

The examples above display the different results that derive from the different perspectives for the local cultural context. Wherever the economic profits substitute the cultural traditions, they are finally both lost.

  • Sustainable development: a myth or the Future?

While the concept of culture has already been identified with slight variations, for many years the term “development” related to culture “cultural development” is still a subject of study on an international level. The question is whether development is a soulless process flowering economic growth, dedicated solely to the creation of wealth, which treats everything (including culture) as products. Or is it part of a broader effort to create a society whose members participate and benefit from this process and whose objectives are not limited to the economy but shaped by the cultural values ​​of these people? [9]

As dictum former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor. “When a country has set a target growth without reference to the cultural environment, revealed serious economic and cultural imbalances and great disharmony between man and the natural environment …. Ultimately priorities, motivations and goals of development must be found in the culture” [25] [17]

The UN launched a World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997) which involved the entire UN system , coordinated by UNESCO.

The decade has set four goals:

– To recognize the cultural dimension of development .

– To confirm and elevate the cultural specificities .

– Broaden participation in cultural life.

– To promote international cultural cooperation.

Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, Amartya Sen, believes that the concept of culture is linked to the concept of development with three quite different , though interrelated roles.

  • a) Constitutive role: Cultural development is an essential and integral part of development in general. If people are not given the opportunity to realize and further cultivate their creativity, it will itself become a barrier to the development (and not just because it may harm the growth or some other specific target). Therefore, literacy is important not only because it contributes to the economic growth, but also because it is an essential part of cultural development [11].
  • b) Evaluative role: All the things that are influenced by our culture. Nothing can justify the economic development or any other similar target out of, and what we believe reflects the level of our civilization. Even though different societies share the same fundamental values, it does not necessarily mean that these values ​​exist independently of culture, but merely state the convergence that exists in societies with regard to certain fundamental values.
  • c) Organic role: Whatever our goals are, the pursuit is determined to some extent by the nature of our culture and our ethics. We should not ignore the fact that cultural considerations play, amongst others, important role to the achievement of both economic growth and other objectives, such as the improvement of the quality of life. A key element of culture is freedom and more specifically the freedom to decide in what things we are interested and what kind of life we want to do. All those three roles of culture are ultimately about this principle of freedom [9].

So, even though for many years cultural tourism has been considered only as a marginal and undervalued economic sector and almost nobody gave a proper view for its evolution, it finally took the proper place in the economic and social complex as the fourth pillar. It was the time that a new perspective of growth appeared, the idea of sustainability. Under this frame culture gained a new value and is now considered an industry which should have duration [9].

The main problem till now was the lack of planning of production activities which has led to an unbalanced growth with serious consequences, primarily on the environment and secondarily on the tourist model, which instead relies on our comparative advantages, specificity and differentiation, the path for reproduction standards. The sustainable development studies suggest some general methods in order to successfully deal the development problems of tourism, even though each case should be considered autonomous. These principles, developed and best particularized by Australian Heritage Commission, are the following [24], [25], [26]:

Principle 1: Recognize the importance of the regions with heritage

Principle 2: Look after the regions with heritage

Principle 3: Develop mutually beneficial partnerships

Principle 4: Incorporate heritage issues into business planning

Principle 5: Invest in people and place

Principle 6: Market and promote products responsibly

Principle 7: Provide high quality experiences for visitors

Because I don’t want to limit my point of view into these principals in my effort to analyze them, I will try to present a more comprehensive categorization of the aforementioned principles. They are obviously pointed after numerous and continues discussions that put in the center the matter of heritage, community and economic sustainability.

3.1 Heritage sustainability

The first issue which rises is about the realization of the monument’s/site’s value. It seems easy to understand the value of Acropolis in Athens or of the Pyramids in Egypt, but that doesn’t happen in all cases. One of the greatest dangers for the future of our global culture is the apparent inability of Western culture to understand and take seriously into account the experience of other cultures that have developed completely different solutions to the problem of survival and expression. However, heritage is exploiting the wisdom that was accumulated throughout the centuries of mankind and is dispersed to all developed and primitive peoples [2]. As a consequence, there are different prerequisites for the promotional strategy and the protection of it, depending on the kind of the exhibit. A well-based analysis of the whole context in which the exhibit is suited (a fine tool is the UNESCO’s documents) is determinant [20]. Those that would take the decision should not be motivated by the temporal benefits, but they should keep in mind the general profit and design long-term strategies, avoiding any excesses which could harm the local heritage. No one wishes for an ”imprisoned” heritage but still, its conservation is the major priority. Besides, the visitors cannot communicate a non-maintained heritage [24].

3.2 Community sustainability

Heritage with everything it includes (monuments, sites and numerous human activities), is in a incessant conflict with the local community. There are two opposite kinds of the inhabitants’ participation in planning the local tourist attractions. In the first kind, they don’t participate at all and are under pressure by the foreign stakeholders to do supplementary jobs (mainly small tourist shops and cheap restaurants) [18].In the second kind, the stakeholders and the local community are matching on a descent level. Wherever the first strategy was practiced, plenty of negative impacts have reviled as we have previously discussed (e.g. lack of hospitality, high level of illegality, nationalism) [10]. On the other hand, a more stable situation grows where the locals express their opinion on this process. Cultural tourists are more interested in the communication with those who created the visiting heritage and who now seem the managers of it, or else the loss of their interest in the attraction could be the result in the case the aforementioned will not be feasible. “Localism” as a basic dimension of sustainable tourism development and the transition from the empirical to the scientific planning of sustainable tourism, require substantial changes in this issue [6].

 3.3 Economic sustainability

Any participant in the cultural tourism sector should have in mind that cultural tourists are mainly well-educated people that seek novel experiences in an organized environment. Namely, they want to explore new civilizations and cultures without abandoning their western high-standard comforts. So, tourism is heavily required due to the upgrading and diversification of supplies (infrastructure, services, activities, human resources), and in the case that the local businessmen do not want to lose in the game of international competition, which increases much more new countries, destinations and cultural products. Crucial are also the qualitative differentiation of their product and the lengthening of the season. In this grim, reality demands bold decisions to be taken (incentives and institutional frameworks), with the aim to improve the quality, but these measures are necessary to improve the image of the tourism product. In a world that offers uncountable opportunities, “quality” is the key to the success [19]. Finally, businessmen should avoid any relationship of dependency with certain markets, due to the “monoculture” of tourism at the expense of other sectors of the local economy. They should target in certain groups, but they should also remain flexible as the tourists’ preferences are rottenly changed [11].

These are the three pillars, which every manager of a heritage product should follow in order to achieve sustainability to his/her project.


It even sounds utopian, heritage is meant to be preserved and transformed perpetually as the human kind will continue its journey through the ages. Any kind of heritage odds or ends compose an international cultural stained-glass and we should all be informed about them and be forced to work in the aforementioned direction.

In my opinion, cultural tourism plays the leading role in this domain. Leaving aside the various benefits of cultural tourism industry for a while, we should mention its role to educate people and disseminate the spirit and value of the conservation of heritage, as humble as it could be. Cultural tourism builds a new type of citizen, he/she who would not be impassive to problems which are happening many miles away from his/her home. Visiting the cultural sites can only be enforced with great religious pilgrimages, as Christians used to do in Jerusalem and Muslims are still doing in Mecca. But this is the half part of the truth and the other side of the coin hides an extremely dangerous risk for these tours. Culture is very fragile and can be easily weathered by a massive tourism-traffic. The negative results have already been known and discussed, but I am not quite sure about the extent of the problems which may appear.

However, during the last decades, the movement of sustainability has come to light affecting all aspects of human activity and drifting cultural tourism industry too. Scientific principals have been established by several international organizations and a large number of scientists with different academic interests each, has been occupied with a future of sustainable heritage. In the effort to enable the promotion of the objectives of UNESCO in the cultural development, it founded the International Fund for the promotion of culture, which is run by fifteen board of distinguished scientists and artists operating on direct contacts with governments, private and public foundations (such as Foundations Agnelli and Gkoulpekian) and Banks (including the Greek Banks Association).

To summarize, cultural tourism is a tool made by humans and it’s up to us to figure out if it is productive for the world heritage or it becomes a deadly weapon. Anyhow, it is capable for both. It is only a matter of time to face the results of the fight of our century, the fight for our legacy.



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  • Athanasios Vlitas is from the historic city of Sparta in Greece and currently lives and works in Izmir, Turkey. He’s a highly motivated professional who has traveled to many cities for academics like Dublin, London, Stockholm and now Izmir. He also has a varied academic background in Philosophy, History, Law and Heritage. He is interested in European history and is also researching on it. He also likes to volunteer for cultural institutions and NGOs, like teaching Modern Greek to Refugees. He has a humanist approach and his life goal is to be an “interpreter” between the native people and the “newcomers”, namely the refugees and the immigrants.

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