History lessons all around us

Cultural heritage tourism trend picks up steam


October 19, 2003|By Martha Stevenson | Martha Stevenson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Study the past if you would divine the future." So said Confucius, and these days more and more Americans are interested in where they come from. Heritage tourism is gaining momentum.

According to a recent study by the Travel Industry Association of America and Smithsonian Magazine, tourists who seek out history and culture (118 million last year, up 13 percent from 1996) spend more, do more and stay longer than other travelers. Interest in African-American history, the civil rights movement, women's rights, Native American culture, the Civil and Revolutionary wars, and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition are all helping to fuel domestic travel.

Cheryl M. Hargrove, who helped start the heritage tourism program for the National Trust for Historic Preservation more than a decade ago in Washington, and who now heads the HTC Group, a consulting firm in Asheville, N.C., specializing in heritage tourism, said that over the last 10 years more than half of the 50 states had established cultural heritage tourism programs.

"It's a way for them to tell their own story, embrace who and what they are, celebrate it, come to terms with it," she said.

History buffs can design their own itineraries or sign on with a tour that explores an area of interest. For the former, the nearly 77,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places are a good starting point. Also of interest is the Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary Series, www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel, a collection of 31 regional trips designed by the National Register in cooperation with communities, regions and heritage areas.

For those caught up in the excitement surrounding the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, there is an itinerary on that subject. A map tracing the route has clickable "tents" that describe the parks and monuments along the way. Other trips include thematic and regional guides to the Underground Railroad, the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor in Pennsylvania, and the Shaker Trail. Many cities' visitors bureaus offer free guides to neighborhoods and historic districts. Among San Francisco's 10 free brochures are guides to Asian, Jewish, African-American and Latino heritage sites, available on the Web at www.destinationsf.com or at 415-391-2000.

Through Nov. 30, Washington is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech with "Blues & Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience in Washington, D.C." Featured exhibitions are the art of Romare Bearden, on view through Jan. 4 at the National Gallery, and African-American quilts at the Textile Museum until Feb. 29. Festivals, theater and restaurants with African-American cuisine are part of the promotion. Information: 202-789-7000; www.washington.org/bluesanddreams.

Nonprofit organizations like museums and heritage organizations sponsor their own study tours to areas of historic and cultural interest. Agencies that specialize in heritage travel include the National Trust for Historic Preservation itself, which for more than 30 years has offered national and international tours focusing on culture, art and architecture. The 2003 listings include a six-night cruise aboard the 70-passenger Sea Lion in the wake of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia and Snake rivers, beginning Oct. 29 (rates start at $2,390, a person, double occupancy). Information: 800-944-6847; www.nthp.org.

The Smithsonian Institution has many tours built around history. At www.smithsonianjourneys.org, in a box labeled Interest, a click on Civil War History yielded 10 tours, including one in November 2004 joined by Edwin Bearss, a renowned military historian, that retraces the Gettysburg campaign in five days ($1,195 each, double occupancy). Information: 877-338-8687.

An eight-day trip with National Geographic Expeditions leaves Jacksonville on March 20, cruising north to Charleston, S.C., via the Intracoastal Waterway, focusing on the antebellum South and the wildlife of saltwater marshes. Prices start at $2,450 each, double occupancy. Information: 800-439-7567 or www.iexplore.nationalgeographic.com.

For those 55 and older (or who can travel with someone who is), Elderhostel, (877-426-8056; www.elderhostel.org) continues to offer some of the best value and widest choice in learning vacations, including many heritage tours. Weeklong study tours of Chesapeake Bay culture, based at the Crisfield Heritage Foundation and overlooking the largest state-managed marina in Maryland, appealed to the seafood lover in me. And a weeklong tour in March to study Native American heritage in Oklahoma includes classes in history, culture, art and music, as well as visits to art collections and the Cherokee Heritage Center, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum and the Creek Council house. Most Elderhostel tours average a little over $100 a day per person, double occupancy.

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