Nowadays, tourists can visit a wide range of places linked to writers and their work. Literary enthusiasts can interact with the homes and surroundings of authors they admire, or experience the places that have been so vividly depicted in their writing. Some are even able to see or touch objects or memorabilia associated with the authors or their literature. This literary tourism has become widespread and commercially significant in both the UK and across the globe; literary sites are detailed in guidebooks, marked on road maps and appear on road signs. Literary connections are frequently used to promote destinations, such as ‘the Brontes׳ Yorkshire’, ‘Hardy׳s Wessex’ and ‘Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall’. This association with literature can be used to benefit branding and marketing strategies by destination management organisations, especially in Europe and North America. Here Dr Roberts explores the authenticity of such marketing approaches, destinations and experiences.
My research investigates how literary tourism is influenced by tourists’ tastes, preferences and perceptions of authenticity. Literary tourism refers to authors or their literature who are of sufficient repute and popularity that people are drawn to visit locations, either associated with the author (e.g. birthplace, home, graveside), or featured in their writings. Literary tourists explore how places have influenced writing as well as how writing has created place. Destinations with literary connections attract both general heritage visitors as well as a genuine ‘literary pilgrims’; well-educated and well-read tourists versed in literary classics and with the cultural capital to appreciate and understand the heritage of their travel destination.
My doctoral thesis investigated the narratives that have been built around Poldark’s Cornwall and analysed how Winston Graham’s narratives are used when marketing destinations, as well as experiences, to tourists. Destination management organisations recognise the potential of literary associations. The Visit Cornwall website currently advertises 15 Poldark film locations. The online Dorset Guide provides information about Thomas Hardy and the places he described in his writings. Literary tourism is also finding its way into the virtual world of the internet and mobile phone applications. There is a free app of ‘Ian Rankin׳s Edinburgh’, commissioned by the author׳s publisher, giving a virtual guided tour of the city and providing background information on key locations in his stories.
Detached from reality
Literary tourism blends imagined worlds with real-life visitor experiences. The introduction to a literary place starts with reading the literature, with the reader already forming an image of a destination, thereby creating an expectation of what a place could or ‘should’ be based on their reading.
Literature shapes people’s perception of places; it is one way people learn about a place or a landscape. These perceptions can be embellished further in the content generated by destination marketing organisations and used online, in advertisements and on social media. Tourism providers (hotels, museums, tour guides etc) need to have an understanding of their visitor market and what their visitors’ perceptions are. It is a two-way process as the providers also shape perceptions of the places they market. Tourism marketing provides tourists with representational images of the places they are about to visit, helping form an imaginary construction for the tourist.
Understanding what authenticity means to the tourist market, and identifying common themes, can help marketeers and tourism providers tailor the experiences they offer to their tourist market. Authenticity is socially constructed; it has been produced by entrepreneurs, influencers, branding and marketing executives, interpretative guides and even animators. When tourists visit places linked to literature, it is part of their search for cultural and literary authenticity. They want the reality of the place as they imagined it. This presents challenges for the tourism providers at these destinations. To what extent will the experience on offer meet people’s expectations? Getting this wrong can have consequences, especially nowadays with social media platforms providing a forum for visitors to share their feedback and experiences so widely.
One specific research interest of mine has been how tourists perceive authenticity in relation to literary destinations. Authenticity is personal; it depends – at least in part – on a tourist’s cultural capital: education, background, exposure to culture, status, finances etc. What may be authentic to one tourist is not to another. This is explored through the theoretical concept of the tourist’s gaze, referring to the practice of directing tourists into specific features of a place or landscape that ultimately separate them from the everyday experience of the locals. In essence the tourist and their viewpoints are manipulated, so that the tourist’s gaze falls upon that which they expect to see. More often than not, this has been built up by promotional material such as brochures, advertisements, films and even television programmes.
The tourist’s gaze is a socially-constructed phenomenon. There is no single gaze. It varies across social, cultural and economic groups. It encapsulates tourists’ experiences, providing a basis for their interpretation and exploration of a place. Cultural capital and background influence perceptions of authenticity; two people can be at a destination simultaneously yet experience it differently. In part these differing experiences and perceptions are a reflection of differences in cultural capital.
Meet one’s gaze
These differences led me to introduce a new concept which I have described as the ‘authentic gaze’. This conceptualises the relationship between tourists’ and tourism providers’ cultural capital and their perceptions of authenticity. The authentic gaze informs both a tourist’s and a tour guide’s selection, participation, appraisal and satisfaction of their experiences of what’s provided. A tour guide’s perceptions of what is authentic and worth seeing influences their supply of ‘authentic sights’ or ‘experiences’ to the tourists they are guiding.
The authentic gaze provides a framework to explore the ways in which literary tourists and tourism providers either accept, negotiate or reject authenticity or truth claims. It provides a lens that marketeers and tourism providers need to consider in their management and interpretation of the literary tourism sights and experiences. Equally, the concept is applicable to other contemporary types of tourism as it informs tourists’ approach to, and overall satisfaction with, the experience demanded and subsequently supplied by the tourism providers.
In creating, and servicing, the demand for a literary destination, different groups need to be aligned with the quality of the literary tourism product and its ability to meet, if not exceed, the expectations of visitors. Bringing all the divergent components of the destination product together for the achievement of a common goal can be a considerable challenge. For some destinations of interest to literary tourists, this could necessitate engagement with national and international publishers, authors, media organisations and film makers. Adopting a co-created and coherent approach will make the tourists’ experience more consistent and satisfactory. The industry needs to encourage a more collaboration and strategic thinking in the marketing of destinations and the provision of services. This could include sharing data with different (even competing) organisations to enhance understandings of trends in their target visitor market and their preferences in terms of authenticity.
Writing on the wall
There is room for more research to explore the way in which literary tourism stakeholders experience or define the places they are connected with. Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and the UK’s literary heritage draws many visitors here. It is important, both economically and reputationally, for their experience to be a positive and authentic one.