How rural communities benefit from sharing stories: Tourism, Intangible Heritage conservation and Community Resilience

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Paper presented at the World Travel Market/World Responsible Tourism Day 2013: London

What is tourism and heritage's economic contribution to conservation and communities? Currently Australia tourism research statistics indicate very broad figures, for example overnight expenditure at AUD$188 per night for Culture and Heritage Visitors compared to $159 per night by other tourists. Day Cultural and Heritage visitors spend $133 per excursion compared to $100 by other day visitors (Tourism Research Australia 2009)
However, what is not clear from these figures is to what degree these funds help conserve heritage or benefit communities whose heritage it is. These figures alos do not tell us what the value is of Australia's intangible cultural heritage (stories, performance, music, folklore and crafts). So today I am going to present three examples of intangible cultural heritage and demonstrate how much tourism puts back and therefore how important it actually is for rural communities.

The stories involved have meanings which reinforce local identity. They are integrated into destination experiences and through active visitor participation the heritage is conserved.

The acts of conservation help to build community resilience.The economic value from tourism goes much further than expenditure figures alone, it is the oil that lubricates their lasting legacy and that helps to sustain the community.

My three examples of Booderee, Grenfell and Cowra, described above, demonstrate that Heritage Tourism and Legacy Tourists make important contributions to conservation and local communities. Destinations would benefit by targeting those who will care and support heritage which is personally valued. Such visitors can help communities responsibly prosper from their heritage.
I concentrate on three Australian case examples.

These stories are of humble attractions and demonstrate three factors which can guide us on maximising responsible tourism and heritage's contribution to communities. They are:

  • Recognising that Heritage and Legacy Tourists are a separate category from visitors who visit heritage places; their revenues offer significant economic contributions to communities
  • Such tourists contribute to a community's intangible heritage conservation by supporting acts of remembrance and performance
  • The value of intangible heritage helps to reinforce a community's identity and contributes to community development and resilience


Booderee National Park

My first example is Booderee National Park, which is jointly managed by the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community and National Parks Australia. The Park is located 3 hours south of Sydney on the coast. The Aboriginal community live in the park. Gate revenue from the 400,000 visitors per year enables 80% of the park staff to be Aboriginal, provides a $270,000 annual lease paid to the community and a $1 million maintenance contract awarded to the community. This revenue enables the community to survive intact.

Heritage tourists receive education tours, storytelling and performance activities which generate additional revenue.
These Aboriginal experiences are also offered to local non Aboriginal communities around the region. This is sowing the seeds for a more multi-cultural society between First Australians and settlers. Dreamtime Stories, like how King Bundoola and his 12 wives created the 12 tribes of the South Coast, are helping to establish a new sense of place for the young white generation and so an evolving intangible heritage.

Importantly the community also invites young disadvantaged Aboriginal youth from Sydney and regional NSW so that they can reconnect with country.
In these ways Dreamtime stories like King Bundoola are living and evolving. It reinforces the community's identity and has helped eliminate poverty at Booderee.

Henry Lawson Festival of Arts

We now move 500 km inland to Grenfell, a town in Weddin Shire, a council area with just 3,600 people. It is the birth place of Henry Lawson. Lawson is in fact recognised as one of Australia's finest literary figures who was a complex troubled man who liked his drink and wrote about life as it was between the 1880s and 1920s. It was a very tough existence where families lived in bark huts with dirt floors and where European farming practices were at odds with a climate that did not offer a shower of rain for eight months or more. His poems and stories showed how early settlers and gold prospectors struggled using their own resources, often with great humour like in the famous Loaded Dog story, still read at schools across the country.

Lawson lived for 55 years, the same length of time that the Henry Lawson Festival has been running in Grenfell . Some of the 70 people employed in tourism and members of the community voluntarily organise the two day festival that attracts 6,500 people, 80% of whom are outside the council area, and generating $1.9 million in direct expenditure.

80% of visitors are legacy or heritage tourists, many have attended up to 9 times and thus contribute to the bulk of expenditure. The programme content includes a special poetry session at the obelix to mark Henry's birth place, in a tent on the rough goldfield of that time. There's music, events and a Papier Mache a bust of the poet created by the town's people which is annually centre stage. For the audience it creates moments of identity, recreating social practices of their youth, or forming them and creating bonds through shared experiences. Tourism sustains the festival, the performances conserve and evolve the heritage. This fortifies those present as they connect with past countrymen who lived through droughts, floods and fires. The value of this event is much more than mere money. It helps to reaffirm their identity.

This is what Carly Brown president of the Henry Lawson Festival said "I could not agree more. Holding the annual Grenfell Henry Lawson Festival of Arts does more than conserve identity it connects visitors to National History. Henry Lawson was arguably Australia's greatest Short Story writer and poet. He, to Grenfell, is sort of like everybody's son. It has been recorded and said many times that 'Henry was the People's Poet'. And that he was. " 
Tourism helps conserve Grenfell's heritage and so builds pride and sustain the community's stoic identity, key factors for community development.

Cowra 'Peace Collection'

My final example is the Cowra ‘Peace Collection'. Cowra is the site of the only armed combat on Australian soil in WW2. The prisoner of War Camp in Cowra contained 1104 Japanese soldiers. In 1944 the Japanese planned a mass escape and suicide attempt. One Australian machine gunner and his mate were on duty and gunned down 300 Japanese before being killed themselves. At the end of the war returning Australian service men to Cowra looked after the Japanese POW graves and tended them. Many years later the Japanese came to learn of the goodwill shown by Cowra residents and with Australian government support built the largest Japanese Gardens in the Southern Hemisphere. Every year since 1964 Cowra has held a Festival of International Understanding which celebrates the world's cultures. The town was also awarded the UN World Peace Bell, an honour normally given to capital cities. 

Nearly half the visitors to Cowra come specifically to view the peace collection which includes the POW Camp site and gardens. The awareness of the unique historical facts have helped raise considerable grant funding and over $1.2 million per annum in entry fees to the gardens alone. Funds are channelled into improved interpretation across all sites.
Significantly, the Japanese consider the place of importance. Legacy Tourists represent over 7% of the total visitors to the area. Annually official representatives of the Japanese Government pay their respects. Legacy tourists conserve the intangible heritage through repeat performances and creating bonds through shared experiences.

Lawrence Ryan President of the Cowra Breakout Association says "the story of the Breakout....... and the reconciliation between Cowra and Japan is so well known in the local community that it truly has become the foundation block for the town's unique place in history". 

It exemplifies the Australian character of not to bare a grudge, to shake hands and look beyond. It is a story of goodwill sustained by heritage and legacy tourists. It creates a competitive edge for the destination. The Cowra Peace Collection is estimated to bring $17.5 million in direct overnight revenue annually alone.


  • Tourism expenditure facilitates acts of remembering Tourism in Booderee, Grenfell and Cowra enables the communities to run activities and showcase their intangible heritage. In this way tourism contributes to a community's heritage conservation by supporting acts of remembrance and performance 
  • Stories reinforce local identity and community resilienceThe value of intangible heritage helps to reinforce a community's identity and contributes to community development and resilience
  • Active visitor participation conserves heritage. It is important to recognise that Heritage and Legacy Tourists are a separate category from visitors who visit heritage places; their revenues offer significant economic contributions to communities and responsible tourism would benefit from targeting the people who care about the heritage.


Intangible cultural heritage is a valuable economic contributor to rural economies, it provides strong community development value and helps establish a strong destination point of difference.

Consequently responsible tourism needs to be actively involved in the conservation of intangible cultural heritage by targetting legacy and heritage tourists and facilitating performance and identiity making events.