Analyses - May 9, 2006



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May 2006


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Culture: The key to urban tourism

In the new millennium, Montréal’s leaders and opinion-makers have continually emphasized that the future of their metropolis is tied to culture. But it isn’t the only city to have recognized the value of culture. Toronto has decided to invest heavily in its cultural infrastructure, while New York City has opted to directly support creative endeavours in order to consolidate its reputation as a city of cultural excellence. More than ever before, culture is the beating heart of a city.

Economic advantages of culture

In a world where cities rather than countries are the real players in a competitive global economy, culture is now widely recognized as a vehicle of economic and urban development. By virtue of its ability to generate a creative environment that attracts the investors and talents of the new knowledge- and innovation-based economy, culture is destined to become increasingly ingrained in the urban fabric.

So it’s no coincidence that urban tourism is associated naturally with cultural tourism. A recent study by the European Travel Commission suggested that a mere 20% of tourists who visit a European city mention culture, in the broad sense of the term, as the main reason for their visit. Yet even if a large number of urban tourists do not view themselves as cultural tourists, the majority of urban vacations include at least one cultural activity.

While urban cultural tourism continues to be dominated by the great capitals of culture such as Paris and London, the current trend of improving the cultural offering means even cities previously lacking cultural interest can emerge as new tourist destinations.

Development through construction

Faced with the daunting challenges of urban renewal, many cities choose to develop major cultural infrastructures as a way of tangibly communicating the transition towards a new economic era. Among the oft-cited examples is Bilbao in Spain, which signalled its march to the future by commissioning world-renowned architect Frank Gehry to design the breathtaking Guggenheim Museum. In addition to transforming Bilbao?s image, the museum drew more than 1.3 million visitors in its inaugural year, 1997. Significantly, 79% of the visitors said they chose Bilbao as a destination with the express purpose of seeing the museum.

Bilbao’s success has inspired numerous European and American cities to revamp their images and breathe new life into tourism by constructing major architectural works.

In Scotland, the city of Glasgow, proud possessor of a substantial industrial heritage, is investing in the creation of a spectacular new Museum of Transport, scheduled to open in 2009.

Toronto, too, has launched several major projects, including the overhaul of the Royal Ontario Museum ($200 million), construction of the Opera House ($181 million), Gehry’s redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario ($180 million) and the renovation of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art ($15 million).

Rethinking the urban space

Other cities have opted instead for urban renewal projects aimed at enhancing and improving access to the culture. Some of these projects are meant to re-energize a heritage district and others to change the vocation of an old quarter, as in the case of the revitalization of Québec City’s Petit Champlain and Saint-Roch districts. The latter, site of workshops and stores since the founding of New France, is today a thriving mix of historic homes, restaurants, businesses and theatres. Saint-Roch, meanwhile, owes its new lease on life to one of the largest urban construction projects in the provincial capital. The city invested $5.2 million in the landscaping of Jardin Saint-Roch, a veritable oasis of greenery amidst the greyness of the then-neglected neighbourhood. Today the neighbourhood is a hot new destination in the heart of the city, boasting trendy restaurants, fashionable watering holes, lovely avant-garde boutiques and more than 100 artists’ studios.

Redevelopment can also help structure the urban cultural offering. In Montréal, municipal leaders have been working in partnership with local tourism and cultural sectors since 2003 on development of an arts and entertainment district to be called the “Quartier des spectacles.” A similar initiative was recently launched by Vancouver, which this past April (in collaboration with British Columbia’s Ministry of Tourism, Sports and Arts) announced a $10-million investment to support creation of a cultural precinct in the heart of downtown.

Vienna, meanwhile, saw fit to think big, combining the concept of a cultural district with new cultural buildings to create a kind of “complex of culture” – the Vienna Museum Quarter. At 60,000 square metres, the vast cultural-tourism-recreational site features more than 40 cultural institutions showcasing art in all its forms. In its first year, the complex welcomed more than two million visitors.

Urban vitality and local culture

Other cities are tackling the issue of cultural development with an approach that’s less about architecture and urbanism, and more about trying to promote and support the creativity of artists and artisans as well as the characteristics of the local populace. In this vein, the mayor of New York recently declared that development of the city’s cultural vitality depends on the energy of its cultural endeavours, and that a special office would therefore be created to directly support creative artists and actively defend New York’s title as North America’s arts and culture capital.

In Washington, DC, in an effort to ensure that cultural development benefits all, the organization Cultural Tourism DC has developed self-guided walking tours through historic neighbourhoods located outside the traditional city centre. The objectives were to promote Washington’s different neighbourhoods, get local communities involved, develop cultural products and foster success by ensuring products were truly ready to receive visitors. This approach recognizes culture as an engine for tourism development, and that participation of the local population is necessary for sustained cultural development.

Meanwhile, the popularity of many festivals among locals and tourists alike is another interesting illustration of how culture can act as a promoter of local development. French sociologist Gilles Arnaud says the success of festivals arises out of a number of trends, such as:

  • the quest for pleasure, shared feelings, and spontaneity, rather than over-intellectualized pursuits,
  • an attraction to the transitory, as opposed to the traditional idea of culture as something durable, permanent and intangible down through the ages.

Authenticity comes first

It appears each city must adopt an approach to cultural development tailored to its specific circumstances, history and means. Urban and cultural tourism, for its part, is simply what flows from the existing and constantly evolving dynamics between the inhabitants of urban spaces and those who visit them. City planning, sociology, tourism and ultimately the economy itself appear to be but variables in the same equation: that of living well together.

In collaboration with Matthieu Clair Saillant

Brault, Simon. “Montréal, métropole culturelle inachevée,” Le Devoir, April 27, 2006.
City of Vancouver. “Province and City Plan New Vancouver Cultural Precinct,” Press release, April 5, 2006.
Cloutier, Mario. “Montréal n’a rien à envier à Toronto comme métropole culturelle,” La Presse, May 10 , 2006.
Commission Européenne du Tourisme. “Une étude de l’OMT et de la CET analyse les futurs enjeux du tourisme urbain et de la culture en Europe,” Press release, November 8, 2004.
Joyal, Serge. “Montréal a-t-elle perdu son statut de Capitale culturelle du Canada?” La Presse, August 15, 2005. Plaza, Beatriz. “Evaluating the Influence of a Large-scale Cultural Artefact in the Attraction of Tourism – The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Case,” Urban Affair Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, November 2000.
Rioux Soucy, Louise-Maude. “Tourisme culturel: New York sort les griffes,” Le Devoir, April 6, 2006.

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