Essence of Place and Sustainable Tourism

Haida Gwaii, rock

Haida Gwaii

(This article originally appeared in Legacy Magazine.)

As an interpretive planner, I’m always on the lookout for tools that help me in my work.

A few years ago, when I was working with the Parks Canada agency, we began to develop a creative model we called Essence of Place. It turned out to be not only a good way of defining a site’s themes, but also a great tool to work toward a more sustainable model of heritage tourism—one that addresses the needs of host communities, visitors, the industry, and the environment, on the long term.

What do we mean by Essence of Place?

It’s the sum of the qualities, tangible and intangible, that define a place and set it apart from the rest of the world.

When we define a site’s essence, we’re assigning heritage values to our resource, which is what all management planning and interpretive planning ultimately do. And in the past, these values were traditionally drafted by a subject matter expert employed by the mandated agency, working in isolation. Those values would be codified in a plan and then ratified by the authorities, in the decide-announce-defend paradigm of traditional management planning.

In a more sustainable tourism model, Essence of Place becomes a consensus document that reflects the values of the host community. It includes the voices of experts like scientists and historians—but it also honours voices and opinions that may have been ignored in the past. It describes what’s important—what’s essential—to the community. It answers the questions, “What do we cherish and hold true about this place? How is it unique in the region, the nation, the world? And how do we know when we’ve screwed it up?”

Essence Exercises

To define your site’s Essence of Place, you begin by gathering your community—your place’s custodians, its neighbours, the local shopkeepers, its tour providers. You invite someone from the historical society, perhaps, or the university’s ecology department. You invite the local First Nations. You make sure the Black community or the Chinese community or the South Asian community—as appropriate to your place and your history—are included.

And you set aside a half-day to a full day to celebrate, communicate, discuss and collaborate about that place and its stories.

What does that look like?

First: each participant must arrive with six iconic images that are emblematic of the place. The participants present those images to each other, and try to come to an understanding of how those images are iconic or truly emblematic. You encourage them to question and gently challenge each other on their points of view and assumptions.

Image: A pronghorn alone on the prairie, steam coming from its nose in the cold winter air. Not a fence in sight.

Image: A sepia photo of a woman on horseback on top of a mountain. She is in a crisp blouse and long Victorian skirt.

Next you move beyond the visual, to include tangibles and intangibles. Working in small groups, your participants answer the question, “Without _______, our place is no longer our place.”

“Without wolves, Algonquin Park is no longer Algonquin Park.”

“Without the voices, stories and presence of the Haida People, Gwaii Haanas is no longer Gwaii Haanas.”

“Without its Japanese farming heritage, Mayne Island isn’t Mayne Island.”

Next, the group must come up with six must-know facts about the place.

Our coastal wetlands are ecologically unique and globally significant. 

Women were the social fabric that allowed the settlers to survive here.

You identify three regional places or attractions that are most like your place. You define how your site is different.

Samson Park up the road has similar coastal wetlands and a similar clientele. Our wetlands are more accessible, more diverse and better protected.

You imagine a failed future in which your site’s essence has been compromised.

The clean, open beaches that defined this place are littered and crowded with hotels. The biodiversity of the coastline is gone. 

You try to identify a single Big Idea that encapsulates everything you want people to understand about your place

This is where land, sea and people meet, and change one another. 

You let your participants’ creative side free, and allow them to compose free-flowing text about your site.

Rain. Waves. Rocks and beaches. Surf. Sea lions and gray whales. Towering cool forests. Jungles of cedar and moss. Surfers and tourists. The Nuu-chah-nulth people. Fishermen. Wolves and cougars. Fishing boats. Winter storms, summer sun. Tired hikers, happy boaters. 

And when your workshop is done you compile your participants’ contributions into a single document. You may have to do some summarizing and editing, and you may need to pass that document around for commenting and tweaking before you produce your final version.

And then you celebrate it, and hand it over to the community. And you use it as a cornerstone of your management plan, your interpretive plan, your branding exercise and your marketing plan.

That’s Essence of Place as a sustainable tourism planning tool.

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