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Talking to Tourists

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Visitor interpretation

Image: Interpretive media - Explainers

If your kind of tourism is to do with beaches, bistros, boutiques and boogying then you’ll be a happy enough bunny once you have got them. You need to know how to find your delights – a guide book might help. If you speak the language, or the owners speak yours, then you won’t bother with a phrase book. We all enjoy the pleasures and profit that popular tourism supplies.

Which is fine if the environmental, social and cultural consequences are of no concern. Sustainability will not be an issue. But of course it is always an issue, if not for the tourists, bless ‘em, it is for the managers, the communities and their leaders. Is transport pollution a problem? Are natural and human habitats being eroded, destroyed? Are drunken beach parties, druggies and unacceptable behaviours of all kinds driving coffin nails into neighbourhood life? Do the comparatively rich tourists who descend on poverty-struck places cause destruction by their unthinking, ill-informed activities?

For five hundred years people in tourist destinations of one kind or another have often been aghast at what the tourists might bring with them – attitudes, arrogance, and exploitation of some kind or other. For fifty years at least now the scale of these problems has rocketed with tourism’s growth. Since the ‘sixties and ‘seventies worries about the environment have grown. Some destinations have turned to political changes in order to protect themselves. In extreme cases direct action has been used by extremists, ranging from sloganising to physical attacks. When visitors and the people they visit are separated by their different beliefs and behaviour then there are serious problems to be faced.

On the other hand, travel broadens the mind. Well, it might, if it is well planned and managed. Visitors go home with enriched understanding and positive experiences if everything is done well. Residents gain from an inflow of ideas as well as currency. Travelling in order to understand as well as to enjoy will clock up rich rewards on the balance-sheet of human existence. Better, much better, than living in ignorance of what the world is about.

This page will set out to work towards part of the positive management strategy that is required. It develops the idea that the key to successful, sensitive tourism lies in communication. A good communication strategy has to be based on knowledge of the destinations and the markets. It must base commercial marketing on the ‘P’ that is missed out of so many strategic plans – policies: not just for making profit but for setting the limits of acceptability in terms of economic, social and cultural effects. Such a strategy relies on well-planned communication with both sides of the tourist experience – both the visitors and the visited. Much of that requires excellent levels of customer service by well-prepared staff. It also requires a properly planned, well supplied range of communications media – the guide books, visitor centres, events and displays, backed up by tours led by knowledgeable leaders or well-designed audio devices. By no means are all of these necessary for every destination or location. Oversupply can be as damaging as undersupply, not the least because of problems of intrusiveness or the danger of isolating the visitor in a kind of informational bubble that keeps them away from effective interaction with what they are there to experience. But if there is no information, no interpretation of the meaning and significance of the place, the people, then a golden opportunity will be lost.

That is what this page is about: the media that are needed in some form or other to explain about places.


Image: Tittesworth Visitor Centre

A Visitor Centre

A visitor centre at a reservoir in Staffordshire in the UK is one of many examples of public information about utilities. For thirty or more years Water Boards - succeeded by water companies - have used their resources of space and budgets to add new facilities - effectively, tourist attractions. Environmental concerns which grew during the late 1960s took on the techniques of visitor interpretation being developed in the United States and elsewhere in order to raise awareness of many issues.

At the same time these utilities found an effective public relations channel that boosted their image. Their importance could be recognised as not just being as water suppliers to the community, but environmental conservationists on the one hand and providers of a pleasant day out on the other. Signposting, car parks, footpaths with information panels and small exhibits were added to the guide books and galleries in the visitor centre. New leisure activities from bird watching to windsurfing were often added.

Perhaps it should be recognised better that these forms of communication channel, an important and growing part of the tourism infrastructure, are also a vital part of the democratic process. An electorate has to be well informed in order to influence the adoption of policy. This kind of tourism can do what the mass media and classroom education cannot do - allow people to see for themselves what their world is about.

Image: Whitby Abbey

Audio Tours

Whitby Abbey is associated not only with the history of Christianity but also the origins of the story of Dracula, the life of fishermen over the centuries and the early life of Captain James Cook, the explorer. It stands high above the east cliffs at the top of a long, long flight of steps climbed by thousands of tourists and people from the nearby community.

So it has many stories to tell. English Heritage care for the site and organise the interpretation of these stories through a visitor centre and guide books, and also an up-to-the-minute personal digital player. Carried by the visitor who holds an earpiece close to his or her head, the unit replays recorded words and sound effects chosen by the user according to at which point they are standing. Rechargeable batteries and no moving parts mean much more reliable units than the simple cassette players available in the last 1970s. The capital cost might be high, but it's relatively easy to revise messages. The human voice has a strong resonance for the listener. In addition, different languages and messages suitable for different ages can be added quite easily.

Image: Audio guide device


Image: Elephant seal location - Californian coast

nterpretive Panels

Near to San Simeon on the coast of California is a length of beach loved by elephant seals. They come ashore at certain times of the year such as July and August when they moult. These rather forbidding animals lie on the beach, throwing clouds of sand over their backs and occasionally bellowing their opinions to each other.

Drivers along the adjacent highway often stop here as there is a good little parking area. A short walk brings them to a slight drop down to the beach. Round their feet and in and out of fencing run ground squirrels, cheeky little grey animals out to steal any kinds of food they can find. Gulls land on the fence posts, eyeing the proceedings with old fashioned disdain.

Its best for the elephant seals if they are left in peace and visitors stay on the higher level. And its better for the visitors if they don't tangle with the characters down near the shore line, who can get pretty irritated with those pesky tourists. So interpretation panels have been provided explaining who these animals are, what they are doing and how they should be treated - with care. The public gets its questions answered, the fellers on the beach are left in peace, and everyone goes home a little wiser.

Oh, and the ground squirrels probably get a little fatter from anything dropped by the tourists.

Image: Elephant seals - interpretive panel


Image: Skansen interpretive panel

National Pride

Well, not only national but international, and not only pride but understanding. Stockholm's open air museum (with a few touches of zoo thrown in) called Skansen is reckoned one of the first of its kind. Artur Hazelius, who founded it in 1891, had been impressed by the Great Exhibition forty years earlier in London and thought of the idea of a permanent collection of buildings drawn from all over Scandinavia and Finland in order to show visitors what things were like in the old days.

Interpretation panels here were used to explain what was rather than what is (the Cardiff Bay example of an earlier posting was of what will be). This example is graphically neat though a tad dull in its white and grey, and it would be interesting to know how far the average visitor gets through the text before moving on. Some museums and nature centres use 'adult' and 'child' versions of text - it's often kid's versions that get read most - they're usually shorter and more colourful. Interpretation schemes often encompass a visitor or orientation centre, and set of panels, a number of small exhibits to explain detailed points, some guide books and possibly a guided tour or two. And maybe a video, interactive computer screen, audio recording played through headphones, possibly some outdoor theatre with actors ... well, there are lots of interesting methods. Audio systems can play the sounds of war, the songs of birdlife, the clank of machines and the evocative speech of human beings.

Much more fun than looking at a something locked in a glass case with nothing to bring it to life!

Image: Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre

Regeneration Projects

When the City of Cardiff was moving towards creating a barrage across Cardiff bay in order to regenerate the former coal docks area, a special visitor centre was opened. The unusual 'flattened tube on stilts' building housed a model of the proposed bay area showing the various developments, Printed information could be obtained and staff were on hand to help with questions. Though only a temporary unit, the visitor centre became for a while one of the tourist attractions along with the new interactive science centre and industrial museum. Visitor interpretation was used here to describe plans for the future, rather than dwell on the past. There should be more such projects.

Image: Books on visitor interpretation

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