Culture Matters: An Afternoon Symposium with The Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is a celebration of cultural arts from exemplary destinations; destinations that are diverse, authentic, and home to living traditions—both old and new. This year’s Festival highlights the cultural heritage of Peru – and to accompany the theme, Smithsonian created a symposium at the Freer Gallery of Art to emphasis the importance of culture for sustainable tourism development. The opening remarks from Richard Kurin, “Culture is what makes us human,” set the tone for the panelists to lead vibrant conversations regarding cultural conservation, intercultural communication, and the use of culture as an tourism asset for generating economic benefits.
Cultivating Cultural Industry
The first session focused on the tourism experience and how leaders of the industry can cultivate culture. Juan Luis Reus, Director of Peru Trade, Tourism and Investment Office in DC, spoke proudly of the rich cultural resources and their implications for Peru tourism. Immediately after, Nilda Callanuapa gave a vivid example of the work done at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco: the objective of the center is to preserve the weaving traditions of the pre-Columbian Andes culture. In order for the weaving techniques to stay alive storytelling to engage tourists in the Andean ways and teachings at the Center is vital.
“When I first started the project, the skill was mostly left with the elders…now, the traditional weavings support over 600 workers at the Center.” -Callanuapa
Colvin English, whose ByHand Consulting Company helps artisans all over the world thrive in the tourism industry, gave some straightforward tips on how to run a successful cultural tourism project. “Respect the artisans, have lots of opportunities for interaction and purchase, and always keep your goal in mind.”
Panelists Rafael Varon Gabai, Halle Butvin and Stefania Abakerli added meaningful comments and concerns based on their experiences, including how sustainable tourism is limited by investments and policy support, and how it might be possible to factor culture into a multi-dimensional approach to reducing poverty.
The second session, moderated by Professor Don Hawkins, is how storytelling serves, promotes, and builds culture. Senior Geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, Doug Herman reminded us that we are still drawing from past lessons to cultivate wisdom in the present world, and stories offer us the material to do just that.
Betty Belanus, curator at Smithsonian, showed a video testimonial of how the Folklife Festival acts as a platform for telling stories outside of a local setting. The audience had the opportunity to become enchanted by the story of Ana Rees, an Argentine descendant of Welsh immigrants who maintains her connection with the past by learning her ancestors’ language and most imporantly- preparing Welsh tea and baked goods in Patagonia.
Thinc Design Founding Principal Tom Hennes recounted the experience of making the Jordan Museum exhibits more relevant to its own people by connecting history and present.
“It is not about archaeology. It is about people, and it is about Jordanian people. We are who we were…and now tourists has the chance to see Jordan through the eyes of locals.” -Hennes
Victoria Pope, Editor for Smithsonian Journeys, showed us a side of tenderness and sensitivity in providing an authentic narrative for a destination. Panelist Norie Quintos, Exective Editor for National Geographic Traveler, echoed her approach. As Norie said, the world for travelers is expanding. Not just geographically, but also in terms of cultural experience. Karen Ledwin from Smithsonian Travel stressed the role of guides in forging connections between locals and visitors, and putting the stories in place for the tourists.
Our CEO at Solimar, Chris Seek, took on a different perspective and warned against negative impacts brought on by unsustainable tourism practices. He urged for more active policy and market incentives to encourage sustainable tourism development, so that local communities can receive the respect and economic benefits they deserve.
The audience contributed to the discussion through lively Q&A sessions. A major concern was how we should manage changes made to the local economic, social and cultural system. Experts pointed out that culture is not static, but rather constantly evolving.
The symposium was informative for all and presenters and panelists aliked proved that making culture a focal point in sustainable tourism is not just important, it’s also profitable.