What's Past is Travelogue

Trust program uses heritage to encourage tourism.

When students at Whitwell Middle School began collecting six million paperclips to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, they had no idea that their efforts would receive worldwide attention. Soon after their Children's Holocaust Memorial began in 1998, tourists came in droves to the Tennessee school—an unanticipated result of the frenzy of media coverage the project received.

"Nobody there knew how to handle press or put out information for visitors," says Susan Goldblatt, director of the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. "Here was this site of national interest, and nobody promoting or organizing it."

In fact, until 2002, when a local official suggested tourism as a way to boost the region's economy, southeast Tennessee had no visitors program at all. When the tourism association was finally founded, officials opted to promote the area's heritage, enlisting a consultant from the Trust's Heritage Tourism Program to guide them through the process.

Heritage tourism—broadly defined as any personal travel that includes historical or cultural activities—is often the best way to attract visitors to an otherwise improbable tourist destination. (With 81 percent of U.S. tourists categorized by the Travel Industry Association as "cultural heritage travelers," you've probably been a heritage tourist without realizing it.) "We chose this focus because things developed for heritage tourists can also be enjoyed by local residents," says Goldblatt. "They don't have to be a drain on the community like a theme park or major development."

With help from the Trust's program, residents in 10 counties worked together to identify cultural sites for "heritage trails"—routes linking thematically similar historic sites. "We held a lot of local meetings, and people were really inspired," Goldblatt says. "Everybody was looking at their own community and saying, ‘What do we have here? How can we make it more accessible?' "

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