History and Tourism: What are you learning on Vacation?

My first job out of college was as a tour guide for Bike the Sites, in Washington DC.  I had just graduated with a history degree and was excited about using it!  How naive!  One of my managers thought my interest in history was an asset, but no one else really gave a rodent’s behind–tourism was all about entertainment.  Laughing customers usually meant customers who would recommend us and tip well.  As we journeyed along the National Mall, visiting the monuments, with a tour designed to cover ground on the bikes and the monuments on foot there was plenty of opportunity to eavesdrop on other tours.  It was often absurd, not always, but often!  I vividly recall a discussion with a tour guide who was tagging along with us because her clients had added our bike tour for its novelty–I think they were European, actually.  At the White House I pointed to the flag that flies on the rooftop,

“Now, many people will tell you that that flag on the White House roof only flies when the President is at home, but that isn’t true.  The flag always flies there.  The Secret Service is not particularly interested in signalling to incoming planes–‘He’s here!  Hit it, now!’  So, this is not any indication for his whereabouts.”

“Really?” said the D.C. licensed tour guide, “The flag doesn’t indicate that?”

“Have you ever come by and not seen that flag flying?  Ever?  Even once?  Is he even home, now?  Isn’t he at the ranch, right now?”

She was stunned!  She had to pay a pile of money and take an exam, but that basic fact had alluded her–a fact that could be confirmed by one’s day-to-day experience and occasionally following the news!  (I have an unsubstantiated theory that this myth came about from the flag at Buckingham Palace that supposedly only flies if the reigning monarch is at home.)  At least, she was friendly.  These umbrella-toting guides–part of the bona fide badge of honor to designate that you were a licensed guide, or that you thought it might rain later–were often extremely rude to anyone who was not in their horde and sometimes to folks who were paying them!  Working with the Close Up Foundation, we often took students to the Mall and were continually amazed at the umbrella-tour guides because of their consistently unpleasant demeanor and the content of their spiels.

This blog post is motivated by a couple of articles I have read in the last couple of months.  Both were published in the Washington Post, the most recent of the two was published earlier today (September 20, 2010) and is an editorial, entitled, “Tour de farce.”  It opens in the following way:

The Lincoln Memorial, built in 1964 and designed by John Paul Stevens, commemorates the life and accomplishments of the 54th president of the United States.

IF YOU SPOTTED the numerous errors in the sentence above, you may have a future as a District tour guide.  If you did not, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs wants to keep you from making a living by ripping off visitors.

The Lincoln Memorial, completed in 1922 and designed by Henry Bacon, commemorating the life of the 16th president of the United States.

As the editorial points out, the goal is a noble one, but as is so typical of D.C. bureaucratic solutions the overhaul of the current program, not revised since its inception in 1902, fails–miserably.  While it usefully extirpated archaic rules requiring a doctor’s note to prove a prospective tour guide was not a drunkard, it also requires tour guides to speak “proficient English,” a rule that might be useful for the tourist from Iowa, but much less helpful for the tourist from Germany.  Beyond passing the 100-question test required for the license, what actually tells the prospective client of a given tour guide that they are actually knowledgeable?  The previous exam could not keep the White House flag-myth from seeping through, what will this exam prove?

To the cynic, this appears to be a means for increasing revenue through the tourism industry by trying to ensnare bus-drivers and segway tour operators.  Bus drivers who speak to their passengers, even with an audio tour, about the city monuments are potentially required to be licensed if the vehicle is in motion–but not if it is stopped(?)–according to the characteristically unclear language of the law.  New regulations also require guides that use “self-balancing personal transport vehicles,” segways, to obtain licenses.  The owners of one such company, Segs in the City, is suing the city over the new law.

At the end of the reading, it is not clear to me what the city hopes to achieve with this law.  As a historian, I see no reason to be excited.

So, what should one expect from a tour guide?  Is it merely entertainment in a new city?  My first tour guide mentor, Mark Farrell, always maintained that a tour was supposed to be factual in content, helpful in logistics and entertaining. I have given tours in two places: Washington D.C. and Scagway, AK.  In the former case, the history is both inspiring and often moving.  Not only does one visit monuments to famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, figures, one also visits locations that were the sites of famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, events.  In the latter case, I worked for Sockeye Cycles at one of the important sites in the Alaska Gold Rush and the history is both fascinating and raucously entertaining.  Accuracy was important to me.  (Sockeye, as a business, valued historical accuracy more than Bike the Sites.)  But, entertainment seemed to be the trend–I don’t know of any fellow guides in Scagway who were history majors!  Financially, entertainment was key, most people tipped better if they had laughed and parted company with their guide in an enthusiastic and upbeat mood.  Again, what do customers really want in this instance?

In Barcelona, last spring break, we took a Fat Tire Bike Tour and had a great time, getting to see some things that we probably would not have been able to fit in any other way, all in a couple of hours.  Had we not done it, I don’t know how we would have managed to see La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi or the city park, but I am not going to lie: I really cringed inside when the guide explained that the Cathedral was a cathedral because it had a dead saint’s bones in it!

The church is a Cathedral because it is the bishop's church.

We all enjoyed the tour and the guide was entertaining, but it failed to sate my appetite for Barcelona’s history and I later visited one of the city’s museums–not far from the cathedral, actually–and, learned a great deal more about its origin in Roman times, its medieval history and its transition through the modern era.  As it is, I am still trying to piece together Barcelona’s history.

This brings me to the second article about Williamsburg, currently running a boom business in the wake of the Tea Party’s current prominence.  Amy Gardner reported in the Washington Post about “‘Tea party’ activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers,” on August 1, 2010.  While I do not want to put too much emphasis on general representations based off of the quotations provided in Gardner’s article, I think there are a few that are enlightening about the current boom for revolutionary sites.  At Williamsburg, men and women who have studied specific historical figures act them out in an interactive way for visitors.  According to Gardner, many come to Williamsburg to interact with the Founding Fathers:

“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

Standing on a simple wooden stage before a crowd of about 100, the man portraying Washington replied: “Only when all peaceful remedies have been exhausted. Or if we are forced to do so in our own self-defense.”

The tourist, a self-described conservative activist named Ismael Nieves from Elmer, N.J., nodded thoughtfully. Afterward, he said this was his fifth visit to Colonial Williamsburg.

“We live in a very dangerous time,” Nieves said. “People are looking for leadership, looking for what to do. They’re looking to Washington, Jefferson, Madison.”

“I want to get to know our Founding Fathers,” he added. “I think we’ve forgotten them. It’s like we’ve almost erased them from history.”

Williamsburg, like other colonial sites with historical interpretors, is built entirely on the principle of educating the American public about the historical past.  One of the appeals, it is hoped, is that this format is also entertaining–one of the things that makes these places attractive for families and school groups.  Gardner’s article suggests that this newer waves of tourists comes seeking validation.  Nieves sounds more like a pilgrim than a tourist in this account, coming to sit at the feet of founders.  This puts an entirely different burden on the historical interpretors from any I ever encountered as a tour guide.  But, it is not entirely out of step with the perception of our national heritage historically.  Ft. McHenry, maintained by the National Park Service is referred to as a shrine: “Fort McHenry, National Monument and Historic Shrine,” NPS.  The name existed before the “Tea Party.”

I wonder how often history really motivates Americans when we plan our vacations.  Clearly, there are Civil War buffs who visit Civil War sites and the National Park Service maintains many historical sites, but buffs come already knowing something and I sense many other people just want a good story–one they will repeat, but not necessarily one they require to be perfectly accurate!  Americans are really lucky to have a great number of wonderful places to visit, within our borders, that have little to do with history–visiting the Grand Canyon may actually remind us just how short a historian’s domain is in the earth’s grand story.  So, does real history motivate many vacationers?  I know more than a few tour guides who would bet that a good yarn is better than real history for most visitors and I think they may have the pulse of the average American tourist.

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2 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel

2 responses to “History and Tourism: What are you learning on Vacation?

  1. I got a mention. And funny how little changes. How is that for history. And edutainment did not even get a mention. I vote the next article be spent on where folks commit discretionary time when watching TV. The history versus entertainment is born out almost on a daily basis.

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