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Heritage Visitor Attractions in Europe: a Visitor Profile
Richards, G. (1999) Heritage Visitor Attractions in Europe: a Visitor Profile. Interpretation,
Culture and heritage are increasingly important raw materials for the visitor industry. In a
highly competitive European market, operators are also realising that the ‘natural’ assets
provided by the built heritage or the legacy of museums is insufficient in itself to guarantee
success. The ‘build it and they will come’ formula that worked quite well during the heritage
‘boom’ of the 1980s is being replaced by a realisation that the needs of visitors are paramount
in any heritage attraction that wants to keep on attracting visitors. As Leiper (1990) has
pointed out, attractions do not in themselves exert a magnetic ‘pull’ on the visitor. Attractions,
like any other business, have to appeal to the motivations and needs of their customers. Pure
unadulterated heritage or culture is therefore no longer sufficient – heritage needs to be
interpreted effectively to the visitor in order to provide the vital link between local heritage
and visitor needs.
It is therefore important for heritage attractions to understand the nature of the visitor market.
Although attractions often conduct visitor research, it is often ad hoc and difficult to relate to
wider social, economic and cultural trends that influence visitation. This is true not only of the
UK, but the same problem can be found across Europe. The lack of any co-ordinated research
on cultural and heritage attractions was the catalyst for the European Cultural Tourism
Research Project, which started in 1991. The project is run by the European Association for
Tourism and Leisure Education (ATLAS), which has 170 member universities across the
world. The research was initially funded by DGXXIII of the European Commission. The
research has so far included two series of visitors surveys, the first in 1992 (Richards, 1996)
and the second in 1997. A third survey round is planned for 1999/2000. The surveys have so
far covered some 75 sites in 15 European countries, mainly in the European Union. More
specific research on the activities and motivations of heritage visitors has also recently been
conducted in the context of the EUROTEX crafts tourism project, funded by DGXVI of the
European Commission (Richards, 1999). This presentation provides a summary of the
research conducted under these different programmes to date, and provides some pointers to
the role of interpretation for the European heritage visitor.
Heritage Visitors in Europe
One of the first findings to emerge from the ATLAS research was that there are significant
differences between ‘heritage tourism’ and ‘arts tourism’, both of which are usually lumped
together under the label of ‘cultural tourism’. In general, heritage attractions tend to be more
easily accessible and attract a broader audience than arts attractions. This reflects the higher
level of ‘cultural capital’ required for visitors to understand or appreciate certain art forms.
Museums and monuments are therefore the among the most popular forms of cultural
Comparing heritage attractions, such as museums, monuments and heritage centres with other
cultural attractions, clear differences in the visitor profile emerge.
Heritage attractions also tend to have a much broader appeal as far as tourists are concerned.
Over a third of tourists visiting heritage sites surveyed in Europe came from outside Europe,
compared with 15% of tourists visiting other cultural attractions. Local residents accounted
for only 16% of visitors to heritage sites.
Visitors to heritage sites tended to be older than visitors to other sites. Over 40% of heritage
visitors were aged 50 or over, compared with 25% of visitors to other cultural sites. This tends
to support the argument that the growth of nostalgia is a particularly important factor in the
expansion of demand for heritage tourism. Arts attractions in particular tend to appeal to a
younger audience, with a particularly high proportion of student visitors.
The older age profile for heritage visitors explains why heritage sites have more visitors with
a secondary or further education than other cultural sites. The expansion of higher education
in recent decades means that younger visitors generally have higher educational
qualifications. This also accounts to some extent for their higher level of cultural capital and
their subsequent ability to consume arts attractions. In spite of these differences, the
proportion of heritage visitors with a higher education qualification is still almost double the
European Union average, and the proportion of visitors with a postgraduate education is just
as high as for other sites. This underlines the fact that heritage visitors are better educated than
the population as a whole.
High education levels mean that heritage visitors also tend to have high status occupations,
with almost 60% having managerial or professional jobs. Heritage visitors are almost
exclusively ‘white collar’ workers, with less than 20% in manual or unskilled jobs. The
indications are that the heritage audience is dominated by what Urry (1995) refers to as the
‘new middle class’, for whom cultural and heritage consumption is an important element in
their identity formation. Previous research by ATLAS has also indicated that cultural
attractions tend to be visited by a relatively high proportion of people with cultural
occupations, many of whom are using their trips as a way of increasing their cultural capital
relative to their area of work. This effect is less evident in the case of heritage attractions,
probably because of the broader nature of the audience.
The predominantly white collar profile of heritage visitors combined with the older age
profile means that the average incomes are also high. Over a third of heritage visitors have a
household income of over 40,000 Euro per year, which is significantly higher than the
Visitors to heritage attractions are not by any means all cultural tourists. Only 18% of tourists
interviewed at heritage sites classified their holiday as being ‘cultural’. A large proportion of
tourists interviewed were on a touring holiday (30%) or a city break (10%). Many visitors
were therefore just ‘pssing through’, with over 50% of respondents staying in the area of the
interview for 3 nights or less. The heritage market tends to be more of a ‘short break’ market
than other forms of cultural holidays.
The role of the travel trade in selling heritage products is still relatively weak. As with
European tourism in general, the vast majority of visitors are travelling independently, and
less than 40% of heritage visitors had booked some element of their journey through travel
intermediaries before departure. This also means that the proportion of tour group partcipants
is relatively low. Heritage tourists tend to be travelling with their partner or with their
family.The fact that heritage tourists tend to be relatively wealthy also means that they stay in
hotels more often than other cultural tourists.
The motivations of heritage visitors vary relatively little from those of other cultural visitors.
The overwhelming majority of heritage visitors indicate that they are interested in gathering
new experiences and learning new things. Although this fits the traditional picture of the
cultural tourist fairly well, heritage visitors are even more intent on relaxing during their visits
to heritage attractions. The EUROTEX research has also indicated that the combination of
relaxation, fun and learning new things is important to cultural tourists.
The same point is underlined by research conducted for ATLAS by van ’t Riet (1994) in the
UK, Spain and the Netherlands. She found that education is seen as the single most important
motive by almost all visitors. The desire for new knowledge is most often combined with a
thirst for novelty, and with the ability to imagine how things were in the past.
There are indications that heritage visitation is also becoming an habitual element in the
tourism and leisure consumption of cultural visitors. Just under 40% of heritage visitors
agreed with the statement ‘I always visit a museum when I go on holiday’, and almost 60%
had visited at least one other heritage site during their visit to the interview area. Over 60% of
heritage visitors also indicated that they had visited a museum during their leisure time over
the past 12 months, and almost the same proportion had visited an historic monument.
The heritage attraction was not always the primary motive for travel among visitors. Just over
40% of heritage site visitors indicated that the attraction was important in their decision to
travel, but this means that the majority of visitors are not directly stimulated to travel by a
specific heritage site.
Our analysis of heritage visitors and other cultural tourists in Europe indicates that there is
relatively little variation in the heritage audience from one country to another. In spite of the
efforts of museums and heritage attractions to reach a braoder audience, the average heritage
visitor remains relatively wealthy and well educated – a solidly middle class public.
The fact that the heritage audience has not expanded to other social groups creates a growing
problem for attraction managers, because the supply of heritage and cultural attractions in
Europe is rising faster than the growth in visits. Many attractions are therefore suffering a
decline in visitor numbers, in spite of the supposed growth in the popularity of heritage.
This places an even greater emphasis on identifying and meeting the needs of the visitor. Our
research indicates that heritage visitors are looking for the mix of education and entertainment
or ‘edutainment’ usually associated with Disney attractions. The major difference for heritage
attractions is that the ‘culture’ provided is still seen as being relatively ‘serious’, and an
appropriate way of learning while having fun or relaxation. The implication is not, therefore,
that museums and other heritage attractions need to become Disney-type attractions, but
rather that they can learn from Disney, particularly in terms of market orientation and
innovative modes of interpretation.
Leiper, N. (1990) Tourist Attraction Systems. Annals of Tourism Research, 17, 367-384.
Richards, G. (1996) Cultural Tourism in Europe. CAB International, Wallingford.
Richards, G. (1999) Developing and Marketing Crafts Tourism. ATLAS, Tilburg.
Urry, J. (1995) Consuming Places. Routledge, London.
Van ‘t Riet, S. (1995) Back to basics: an analysis of motivations for visiting cultural
attractions. MA Thesis, Programme in European Leisure Studies, KUB Tilburg.
Details of the author
Greg Richards lectures in tourism management at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and is
coordinator of the European Association for Tourism and Leisure Education (ATLAS).