Cultural heritage tourism is one of the most popular categories in travel today – and it’s still growing. The name may seem self-evident at first glance but gets more nebulous with more thought for anyone unfamiliar with the term.

Someone that probably understands the concept better than anyone else is Stephanie Jones. Among other things, Jones is the founder of the Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance and the National Cultural Heritage Tourism Summit. Jones also serves on the United States Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Commerce on matters relating to the travel and tourism industry in the United States.

“Cultural heritage tourism highlights the different cultures within destinations through its people, food, music, and art,” explains Jones, who notes that it’s been experienced by international travelers for years.

“Often, when a person travels overseas, they visit establishments where the locals go to have authentic local experiences.”

But now, American travelers are more aware of the concept. And they’re intentionally engaging in something that was done initially without much thought when visiting international destinations and experiencing the cultural heritage of domestic destinations within their own country.

“Cultural heritage tourism highlights the different cultures within destinations through its people, food, music, and art.”

The importance of cultural heritage tourism cannot be understated. “It provides travelers with connections to local people to have authentic experiences,” says Jones. “This builds bridges of understanding through education and experience, and many travelers find this to be a more meaningful way to enjoy a vacation.”

So, while typical tourism provides ample opportunities to learn about societies, traditions, and the ways other people live, cultural heritage tourism takes it a step further and creates profound social impact. It can help reinforce identities, enhance cross-cultural understanding, and preserve a destination’s culture.

There’s also a commercial component. Cultural heritage tourism introduces positive economic impacts to regions, neighborhoods, and small businesses. Tourists who visit an area to learn more about its culture or visit a cultural tourism attraction contribute to the economy of that area. Increasing visitors at cultural heritage attractions can create jobs, and surrounding businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, can benefit from the uptick in foot traffic.

America’s rich history and diversity make it a country with a vibrant patchwork of cultural heritage tourism sites from sea to shining sea. And while in most any other nation that would be a huge draw for international tourists from abroad, it’s Americans who are most interested in visiting and discovering those cultural experiences in their own back yard.

According to a 2014 report by the non-profit Partners for Livable Communities, not only do studies show that almost 80% of U.S. tourists take part in some form of cultural heritage activity while traveling, but the majority of those tourists cited an event tied to cultural heritage tourism event as the main reason for at least one trip they took in the previous year. About 40% of them said they’d added extra time to at least one trip to accommodate an activity that would be considered cultural heritage tourism.

America’s diverse heritage is traditionally celebrated with parades and festivals. The stories highlighting its different cultures are usually told through music, movies, and other media. But cultural heritage tourism goes much deeper. It provides an opportunity for people to experience a culture in depth by visiting attractions and historical or culturally relevant places and even taking part in some cultural activities.

RELATED: How Stephanie Jones Became an Authoritative Voice on Cultural Heritage in Travel & Tourism

“Cultural heritage is everywhere in this country,” Jones says, “and the U.S. Travel & Tourism industry has an incredible opportunity to do a better job promoting it.”

For Jones, Miami, Florida, with its long history as a melting pot of culture and heritage, is a perfect example. “You could go there and experience the Haitian, Bohemian, Cuban, and Black cultures through their history, heritage, music, food, and through conversation with locals about their experiences.”

Cultural heritage tourism in Miami is something Jones is well familiar with. Before she became a leading voice in the tourism industry, Jones was an entrepreneur marketer with her own firm. Not long after she was hired for a project to educate small Black and Latinx businesses in Miami on how they could better market themselves to capitalize on tourism opportunities and turn some of the of many people arriving on cheap flights to Miami every day into customers, she launched Cultural Heritage Alliances Tours (CHAT).

“Cultural heritage is everywhere in this country and the U.S. Travel & Tourism industry has an incredible opportunity to do a better job promoting it.”

According to Jones, CHAT is “designed to leverage tourism as an economic driver to local Black and Brown businesses and communities that are typically underserved in local tourism ecosystems.”

It offers a Historic Overtown Walking Tour and Soul Food Lunch that explores the neighborhood formerly known as the “Harlem of the South” that served as the epicenter for Black Miami. The tour’s 6-block itinerary takes participants to historic sites where many Black celebrities and renowned leaders helped build Miami’s Black cultural scene. It culminates at a local soul food restaurant that serves some of the best southern cuisine in Miami.

Among other guided tours and experiences, there’s also a 3-hour Diversity in Delray Heritage Tour & Tasting where visitors and locals can experience the vibrancy and intimacy of this South Florida town. The tour showcases the city’s diversity through the hidden cultural gems and historical sites found in some of the off-the-beaten-path historic neighborhoods and art districts.

CHAT’s tours show just how vital local, independent businesses are to cultural heritage tourism. They’re essential to the authenticity of the experience and prime benefactors of the work by people like Jones, who advocate for and promote cultural heritage tourism. But the very thing that makes small businesses in communities so vital in the tourism built around their culture can also make it difficult for tourists to know about and find them.

According to Jones, the key is intention. Americans that want to experience cultural heritage tourism in the U.S. can find the businesses if they really look for them. “They can seek out Black tour operators, restaurants, hotels, and BnBs,” she says. “Taking a little extra time to find those small Black and Brown businesses and communities that offer authentic local experiences and patronizing them will create prosperity for all.”

Regardless of whether or not travelers purposely plan on experiencing it or unconsciously do it while vacationing, there’s no denying the positive impact of cultural heritage tourism. It creates greater awareness of the world we live in, economically supports underserved yet culturally relevant communities, and lends an unmistakable element of authenticity to any trip.

Are you planning to visit any destinations of cultural heritage tourism in the U.S., or been to any that left an impression on you? Tell us about it in the comments!

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About The Author

Rafael is a New Jersey-based writer, DJ, and producer. When he's not writing articles or beats, he's learning about music, off-the-beaten-path destinations to visit, and places to score a great slice of pizza. Check out his work at www.rafahq.com.