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Project Success Stories - European cultural tourism's hidden gems

Tourists in Europe are really spoilt for choice. The problem that many destinations face is how to unlock the potential of cultural tourism. European researchers are busy transforming this growing sector into a well-managed, linked-up package of information, e-services and experiences that really help to put a city on the map.
Project Success Stories - European cultural tourism's hidden gems
Europe is the world's leading international tourist destination with some 500 million arrivals each year (53% of the total). Its cultural cities and heritage are a major draw for international and domestic tourists alike. But this popularity introduces a fresh set of challenges.

Tourism and city authorities are scrambling to keep up with growing demand from visitors for more sophisticated, joined-up tourism experiences, starting online before the trip and ending with user contributions ― i.e. posting pictures and advice on various social networking media sites ― afterwards.

Destinations must find ways to unlock the potential of cultural tourism, for visitors and citizens alike, while protecting the most popular heritage sites from over-visitation. New ways need to be found to inspire greater interest and engagement in cultural heritage and its preservation.

A recently finished European consortium of researchers and cultural tourism stakeholders may have come up with a solution. It has developed a suite of 'Integrated e-services for advanced access to heritage in cultural tourist destinations' (Isaac), or what Isaac's coordinator Krassimira Paskaleva-Shapira of Manchester Business School, calls an 'open box for cultural tourism'.

The project partners developed a unique, user-centred web platform which acts as both a distributed repository of 'intelligent cultural heritage content' and as a service-oriented software architecture for customising the way content is presented and accessed by users.

The Isaac platform harnesses the wealth of cultural knowledge already at the city's disposal in the form of current internet content and archive material and, using developments in Web 2.0 technology, invites contributions from the public (locals and tourists) to enrich and update the material. Combined, these sources help to extend the range of cultural tourism assets, which could also take the pressure off the most popular sites featured in guidebooks.

The project partners have also demonstrated a reliable way of integrating the inputs and interests of a range of different stakeholders, from tourism and city authorities to tourist service providers, local residents and the tourists themselves. The platform has been successfully implemented in Amsterdam, Genoa and Leipzig, and has growing support at the grassroots level in the cities.

'Residents are posting their own stories, pictures and information about heritage sites and cultural events in their neighbourhood, which can attract outside interest as well,' explains Dr. Paskaleva-Shapira. 'This is creating a unique mingling between local residents and tourists, for a richer experience of the expected and unexpected culture in a destination ― museums, little-known festivals, public art, traditions, boutiques, etc.

'Our integrated portal and e-services make the visitor sense, feel, think about, act on and relate to cultural heritage, not just passively look at it. It's about promoting experiential selling points and to give a sense of locality and meaning to local heritage.'

Tourism opens doors

According to Leipzig's Office of Urban Regeneration and Residential Development, which put the Isaac project's tools through their paces, they were 'clearly… a door opener for more advanced use of e-services and for e-governance within the City's administration and beyond'.

Tourism, the Leipzig partners said, generates valuable foot traffic – measuring the number of people entering a shop or public space – for existing cultural facilities, retail outlets and related services. It generates new uses for disused buildings and facilities, and helps to stabilise local economies and attract investment, while supporting built structure and heritage projects and bolstering the external image of certain quarters.

The Commune in Genoa had a similar assessment of the worth of cultural tourism to the city and the contribution of Isaac towards re-packaging its overall tourism offer from an 'old industrial port city to a new, young and lively touristic [sic] city'. Isaac helped the authorities create a whole new outlook with a new portal, new vision and backed by sophisticated IT tools for promoting the city and deploying services, such as interactive maps, new public-private partnerships and a greater stake in the Web 2.0 social networking phenomena.

Genoa's interactive maps bring the city's many UNESCO castles and sites to life with 'clickable' facts, pictures and stories. 'You can get the whole 'back story' of who lived there, what they meant to the city, their traditions, likes, what they ate, and more,' says Dr. Paskaleva-Shapira.

Tourism innovation checklist

The results of Isaac's innovation checklist show, for example, that Amsterdam is advanced in both technological and non-technological innovation aimed at cultural tourism. Leipzig, the results show, invested the most in non-technological aspects, and all three trial cities engaged in new forms of in-house alliances or reorganisation of internal processes and teams to reach their cultural tourism goals.

'Actually, Isaac's results show that modernising ICTs is not sufficient to transform service delivery in cultural heritage tourism,' notes Dr. Paskaleva-Shapira. 'Changing the way government organisations work and transforming government-stakeholder relationships can dramatically unlock the potential for better and richer e-services [in this field].'

Isaac discovered that it was as important to embrace a new way of thinking and identify opportunities for innovation, both technological and non-technological. This could mean better use of e-services and better coordination between heritage groups, tourism marketers and national tourism organisations to find hidden cultural treasures in the destination.

It uses services like personalised itineraries and geo-location to find off-the-beaten-track sites in what becomes 'a journey in urban heritage'. This can be planned before a visitor even books a hotel. 'With Isaac's services, they can see if the hotel is located in a “meaningful neighbourhood”, and then chart an itinerary to enjoy the surroundings, which makes the trip-planning easier, more enjoyable but also a learning experience,' the coordinator confirms.

A visit to 'I amsterdam', the virtual portal inspired by Isaac's approach and tools, is a good place to start to understand the power of simple, joined-up tourism information. An 'active' city map is the centrepiece with a range of 'virtual tours', stories and itinerary options. Click the 'Journey through the Golden Age' and the map instantly displays an ideal route to take in cultural artefacts in the city which match this period in Dutch history.

Virtual visitors can delve further by clicking on the individual geo-locations. A popup offers photos, 360 degree tours, and descriptions and stories about the site. For instance, your reporter learned that the first wife of the painter Rembrandt was buried in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) of Amsterdam in 1642. His daughter Cornelia was baptised there in 1654. The church is now an exhibition space. A subsequent 'physical' visit to the church is then brought to life knowing the famous painter's personal connection to the building. And with Web 2.0 functionality integrated in the website ― as planned in the Genoa case ― the visitor's own experiences (music, pictures, stories, and multimedia combinations, etc.) become part of the information package, not unlike user contributions to TripAdvisor.

Tangible results

The project delivered an integrated and customisable ICT platform for e-heritage destinations, and populated it with accessible e-services and an e-toolkit to aid strategic decision-making in this sector. It also came up with a new governance framework and tool for managing cultural tourism e-services in urban destinations, notably Isaac's e-governance website in Genoa. And it introduced the idea of 'interpretive strategies' which through narrative and story help the trial cities position or brand their e-heritage destinations.

The Isaac team, made up of 14 partners in 5 countries, offer many other tips and e-tools (technological and non-technological) which can be read on their up-to-date website. Other cities are also invited to join the Isaac movement.

The Isaac team has successfully presented the project at several headline events, including the last e-Challenges in Turkey. 'Isaac's platform and services have received a lot of interest from different communities and e-commerce providers,' confirms the coordinator. Discussions are being held with MFG Baden-Württemberg mbH, the Public Innovation Agency for IT and Media in this region of Germany, on how to implement all or part of the project's platform or e-services.

Isaac partners are also not ruling out future collaboration with another EU-funded project, Imageo, which combines smart-phone technology with mapping and geo-location applications that bring tourist photos to life. The phone finds web matches for the image in the phone's display and tells the user what he or she is looking at in real time.

Isaac delivered on many fronts, providing the means to transform a growing tourism sector into a well-managed, linked-up package of information, innovation tools, e-services and experiences (fun and learning) that really help to put e-heritage destinations on the map.

The Isaac project received research funding under the EU's Sixth Framework Programme. The Institute of Technology Assessment and System Analysis of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology coordinated the project.

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