Five Principles for Successful and Sustainable Heritage Tourism

Make the most of your opportunities for cultural heritage tourism by following the National Trust for Historic Preservation's five basic principles. Follow these principles and you’ll avoid many difficulties that could otherwise arise when culture, heritage and tourism become partners.

Collaborate | Find the Fit | Make Sites and Programs Come Alive
 Focus on Quality and Authenticity | Preserve and Protect


Much more can be accomplished by working together than by working alone. Successful cultural heritage tourism programs bring together partners who may not have worked together in the past.

Building partnerships is essential, not just because they help develop local support, but also because tourism demands resources that no single organization can supply. Its success depends on the active participation of political leaders, business leaders, operators of tourist sites, artists and craftspeople, hotel/motel operators, and many other people and groups.

Regional partnerships are also useful to cultural heritage tourism efforts. Cooperating in a regional arrangement lets you develop regional themes, pool resources, save money and expand your marketing potential. Those resources include not only money for marketing campaigns, for example, but also facilities (accommodations for travelers, say) or expertise in tourism, preservation, the arts or another area.

Worksheets: Collaborate | Tips for Successful Partnerships

 Find the Fit

Balancing the needs of residents and visitors is important to ensure that cultural heritage tourism benefits everyone. It is important to understand the kind and amount of tourism that your community can handle.

Local priorities vary. So do local capabilities. In other words, local circumstances determine what your area needs to do and can do in cultural heritage tourism. Programs that succeed have widespread local acceptance and meet recognized local needs. They are also realistic, based on the talents of specific people as well as on specific attractions, accommodations, and sources of support and enthusiasm.

One of the reasons cultural heritage tourism is on the rise in the United States is that travelers are seeking out experiences that are distinctive, not homogenized. They want to get the feel of a very particular place or time. You can supply that experience, and benefit in the process—but only if your cultural heritage tourism program is firmly grounded in local circumstances.

Base your cultural heritage tourism program on what is appropriate and sustainable for your area.

  • Do the residents of your area want tourism?
  • Why do they want it?
  • Are there certain times of year or certain places they do NOT want to share?
  • How will tourism revenues improve life in your area and affect services such as fire and police protection?
  • What is the maximum number of cars or buses your area can handle? On roads? In parking lots?
  • Can you accommodate group tours? Do sites accommodate at least forty people at once with amenities such as restrooms, snacks, and a seating area?
  • Can you accommodate visitors with disabilities or special needs?

Worksheets: Find the Fit Between the Community and Tourism

 Make Sites and Programs Come Alive

Competition for time is fierce. To attract visitors, you must be sure that the destination is worth the drive

The human drama of history is what visitors want to discover, not just names and dates. Interpreting sites is important, and so is making the message creative and exciting. Find ways to engage as many of the visitor’s five senses as you can, as the more visitors are involved, the more they will retain.

On average, visitors will remember:

  • 10% of what they HEAR
  • 30% of what they READ
  • 50% of what they SEE
  • 90% of what they DO

Worksheet: Make Sites and Programs Come Alive

 Focus on Quality and Authenticity

Quality is an essential ingredient for all cultural heritage tourism, and authenticity is critical whenever heritage or history is involved.

The true story of your area is the one worth telling. The story of the authentic contributions previous generations have made to the history and culture of where you live is the one that will interest visitors, because that is what distinguishes your area from every other place on earth. It’s authenticity that adds real value and appeal. Your area is unique, and its special charm is what will draw visitors. By doing the job right—by focusing on authenticity and quality—you give your area the edge.

Worksheets: Focus on Quality and Authenticity

 Preserve and Protect

A community’s cultural, historic, and natural resources are valuable and often irreplaceable.

As a good look around almost any city or town will show, people are often tempted to provide a quick fix of “band-aid” solution—to cover up an old storefront inexpensively, for example, rather than to restore it. But when your historic and cultural assets are at the heart of your plans to develop tourism, it’s essential to protect them for the long term.

Hearts break when irreplaceable structures are destroyed or damaged beyond repair, instead of preserved and protected as they deserve. A plaque pointing out “on this site a great building once stood” can’t tell that story.

Equally tragic is the loss of traditions: a way of crafting wood or farming, of celebrating holidays or feasting on “old world” cuisine. The preservation and perpetuation of traditions is important to telling the story of the people who settled the land. By protecting the buildings, landscape or special places and qualities that attract visitors, you safeguard the future.

Worksheets: Preserve and Protect Resources | Where to Begin