Cultural Tourism and Sustainable Development



Eunice Ramos Lopes

Techn&Art-IPT|Social Sciences Department, Polytechnic Institute of Tomar, Portugal

Rodrigo Nicolau Almeida


Paula Almeida

Department of Social Sciences, Polytechnic Institute of Tomar, Quinta do Contador, Portugal

Célio Gonçalo Marques

Techn&Art-IPT|Information and Communication Technologies Department, Polytechnic Institute of Tomar, Portugal




Cultural tourism has continuously shown its growing importance inside the touristic sector, with visible economic implications. It has contributed to the safeguard of cultural heritage, in a context of local sustainable development. Through a symbolic image mark and “lost and unrepeatable” past objects, more cultural touristic destinies are sought after. In this context, the cultural tourism future tendency seems to steer into more touristic activities, planning and development forms that ensure the socioeconomic integrity of local populations, as well as the sustainability of heritage resources.

The present study aims to: 1) analyse a touristic destiny that includes heritage visiting; 2) understand if destinies with touristic potential, heavily linked to cultural heritage, satisfy most of tourist motivations; 3) identify if there is an acknowledgement of the importance of culture on the attractiveness and valorisation of “touristic-heritage places on the territory” from a sustainable point of view.

The strategy adopted was quantitative, focusing on data gathered from a survey applied to tourists that visit the city of Tomar, with evident heritage references, as well as with growing dynamics of cultural valorisation.

The results point to the importance of heritage resources’ ticket prices, safety, cleaning and hygiene, signage, and preservation state of the cultural heritage as the attributes that most influence the satisfaction level of a given touristic-cultural destiny.

Keywords: Tourism, Cultural Tourism, Heritage, Sustainability.




More and more we live in a world of cultural-touristic consumption. This reality stems from a social, cultural and economic process in which multiple social actors participate and engage in incredibly complex ways. In many ways, the core complexity however lies in heritage resources being simultaneously an objective asset that is mobilised for economic, political and social gains, and an intrinsically social construction – by which we mean, contingent upon the systematic reproduction, transformation and dynamics of social actors engaging with it (Prats & Santana, 2005, p.10).

The bonds of heritage with specific national, territorial and communal identities have likewise long continued to be key markers of heritage attractiveness (Winter, 2015; Waterton & Watson, 2015), and present us on the baseline with the sets of markers that most engage reconversion into touristic sites. These endogenous resources possess thus a double value, engaging tourists in pleasure as well as learning, publicly accessible, and also fabricated cultural products, packed and delivered for a specific form of consumption (Choay, 1999, p.185).

In that sense, cultural tourism ties in with cultural planning and territorial solutions (Bianchini, 1999), seeking to simultaneously differentiate its resources from those of other territories, and also benefit from their similarities. By focusing on interpretation and conservation of heritage resources, it places emphasis on interpretation and knowledge, whilst privileging the experience of territorial identities as a key marker of differentiation (Richards, 2016).

In the context of touristic attractiveness, events are considered a prime focus. They are temporary attractions, image-producing, engaging and promoting static assets and catalysing development (Yeoman et. al, 2006, p.36). On the one hand, they promote connections between tourists and local communities, minimising the seasonal effects of territories, whilst on the other, contributing for local development and growth. It is thus important for “touristic markets” to understand the main drivers that lead tourists to participate in those events, to better assess the needs and deficits of those markets.

All of this ought to be conducted in such a way that allows for territories to maintain the connections inherent to them – namely, the social representations of the communities of those territories, expressed in memories and tacit knowledge of the places – in order to preserve and mobilise those representations to achieve greater sustainability. The risk inherent in this has been well documented, in the “loss of authenticity” that comes from excessive determination of conservation efforts and promotion efforts towards tourist expectations (MacCannell, 1999; Urry, 2002). Rather, such concerns should be oriented to engage those local identities and reinforce feelings of belonging between individuals and their social groups and territories (Vinuesa, 2002). This study, focusing on these two axes of cultural tourism and sustainability, will thus seek to analyse a destination strongly bound to cultural heritage and to understand the valuing of “touristic-heritage places” from a sustainability lens.



Cultural tourism has shown its growing importance within the touristic sector, with notable economic, social and urban implications. On the one hand, this emphasis has lead to preservation efforts that seek to engage the territories and their inhabitants in participated programs of tourist engagement, leading to sustainable development (Peralta, 2003). On the other, mounting concerns over tourism serving to further processes of gentrification, centralisation, with its consequences for social and community ties, economic resilience of populations (Richards, 2016), and the disappearance or loss of importance of cultural representations not easily marketable (Urry, 2002). As such, it is easy to see that for the most part, cultural tourism’s sustainability hinges on the ways that tourists perceive local culture and engage with it. Space, economy, and culture all form and differentiate the location from the global economy, with creativity in many ways as a cross-sectional solution to many of these issues.

In this line of thinking, touristic activity has been in many ways mobilised to promote efforts of “city” or “region” branding, using touristic experience to emphasise the value of the local. It works as a strategic bet, by assuring that, if done right, it maintains and preserves communities, their values, their heritage and identity, not letting them crystallise or disappear (Lopes & Rego, 2017, p.343).

To look into this more precisely, we would need to peer into the systemic construction of culture as a product of actors’ engagements. As noted by Almeida (2018 forthcoming), individuals transact meaning to a given element, interpreting them according to a given category they possess and which relates to their understanding of what a local culture is, which in turn derives from education and cultural engagement with elements. To understand in a given territory what drives and “constitutes” heritage appears akin to dissecting in a given point such a system – which allows in turn more incisive interventions in terms of private and public engagement. In the case of meaning attribution towards the experience of tourism itself, Lopes (2012) has likewise noted the new tendencies for a “cultural-touristic consumption” that point to a tourism that is more motivated towards experimentation, emotions, embodiment and to the feelings of “authenticity” (p.74). In short, not only are objects the source of a cultural signification, which is presumed to be on the basis of their search for the context, but the way in which those significations and encounters occur has become a source of touristic differentiation. This points to heritage serving as a double axis of attraction, both opening itself to processes of meaning attribution, and to differential experiences by agents, which leads to its centrality in touristic attraction (Costa & Lopes, 2017). 

In the contemporary processes of globalisation, the heterogeneity of visitors that comes with optimising such a system of heritage meaning, represents for the activity of preserving and valuing heritage some major challenges, forcing these to search for testimonies and their own heritage in the community – an “authentic appropriation” (Lopes, 2015). It is in this context that sustainability comes into play: sustainability lies on four pillars (ecological, economic, socio-cultural and political), and incorporates it into active planning that is democratic and holistic (Bianchini, 1999; Molnar & Morgan, 2001). To achieve sustainability it is necessary to understand the way in which cultural entities become enmeshed in the socio-economic and urban development processes. To prevent the negative underside of such activities as tourism, it is necessary to see practices of tourism as requiring sustainability for their continued existence, to maintain cultural integrity and ecological processes essential to biodiversity (OMT, 1998).

Figure 1 – Objectives of the European Charter of Sustainable Tourism. Source: (acedido em 12.02.18)


According to Binks et al. (1988), valuing of heritage, the importance of realistic stories about the origins of culture, leisure and rest characterise the touristic activities, and are perfectly compatible with cultural motivations that lead tourists to experience cultural heritage (p. 89). Nonetheless, we cannot pass without mentioning the multi-sector character of tourism, that imposes a particular attention in terms of planning, due to its positive and negative impacts on an environmental, social, cultural and economic level (Cooper et. al, 1998). The same can be said of the principles of sustainability in terms of maintaining social and economic cohesion in communities. This potential for ecological management is assumed in the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism (ECST), and is based on the principle of partnerships and interconnections between local stakeholders, to better assess the social, economic and cultural needs of current generations without risking those of the future generations (ICNF). ECST presents three key objectives (Figure 1).

The goal of the ECST is focused on the reinforcement of connections between local communities, the environment, and other social groups (Balandina et. al, 2012). For the implementation of some operational practices of sustainable tourism, there exist a set of basic principles (Prosser, 1994, p. 37), (Table 1).


Tourist experiences should be based on the characteristics of the environment (natural, social and cultural), its aesthetics, culture, vegetation and animal life;

Tourist development should promote conservation of nature, supplementing the income of local populations and bring new uses and values to structures of historical heritage;

Planning, design and implementation of touristic constructions should be compatible, and if possible improve, local landscapes;

The control of touristic activities should remain, as far as possible, within the scope of local authorities’ responsabilities;

Investment in tourism should serve to support local economy and encourage the slow spatial dispersion of activities, preventing congesture and minimising impacts;

The tourist industry should actively promote knowledge, on the one side from local population, and on the other amongst tourists and visitors – information, interpretation and education.

Table 1 – Basic Principles for Sustainable Tourism Source: Lopes (2018), adapted from the Prosser (1994).


When tourism is sustainable, cultural and natural resources, environmental, social and economic wellbeing, are kept in an area indefinitely (Simpson, 1993, p.74). In this context we can stress the importance of safeguarding heritage resources in the territory for touristic development, by promoting connections between the environment and cultural heritage.




Having run through the literature on tourism, heritage and sustainable development, we opted for a quantitative methodological instruments, distributing surveys to tourists in the centre of the city (between the months of February and March, with about 97 responses). The study was focused on the city of Tomar (Portugal), and the data involved surveys aiming to understand practices of sustainable tourist development. The sample was selected by convenience, focusing on tourists who had visited a touristic destination with clear heritage references and growing cultural valuation.

The questionnaire was short, being composed of only nine questions: 1) socio-demographic characterisation (gender, age, level of education); 2) how they had travelled to Tomar; 3) main reason for choosing Tomar; 4) if they had visited Tomar before; 5) what cultural heritage they had visited whilst staying in Tomar; 6) how they rated the heritage they visited in Tomar according to attributes such as price, information available, conservation, cleanliness, hygiene, safety, signage, and souvenirs; 7) how they rate their experience overall; 8) if they would visit the town again, and finally 9) if they would recommend visiting Tomar to their friends and family.



The main results identified can be summarily stated as such:

  1. Sociodemographic responses indicate a prevalence of the female gender [53%]; they are mostly within the ages of 20-35 and 45-60, and possess a secondary school level [54%];

  2. The means of transport most used is the car [59%] with about 33% using the train;

  3. The biggest motives of choosing Tomar tie to a curiosity about the history of the Templar Knights [34%], a pleasant landscape [28%] and “interesting” heritage [17%], whilst 9% mention “safety”;

  4. In terms of first visits, the vast majority of actors [79%] had never been to Tomar;

  5. As for heritage, 41% of actors had visited the Convent of Christ, the Church of Saint John the Baptist [21%], the Match Museum [18%], with 12% mentioning the Church of Holy Mary of Olival.

  6. In terms of how cultural heritage is evaluated in the city of Tomar, a less positive evaluation was given regarding price [51%], as well as access and state of conservation [54%], followed by lack of information on heritage [32%]. These points indicate that a more in-depth assessment regarding the role of information and interpretation in the city ought to be made, attempting to identify clear needs from tourists, as well economic assessments of the current market demands, to better improve these valuations.

  7. Most tourists classify the visit to Tomar as good [52%], excellent [44%] or reasonable [4%]. In that sense, 72% would visit the city again, and more than 64% would recommend the city to friends or family.

Increasing the sustainability of the touristic market means, in terms relevant here, to be able to increase the way in which tourists participate in the heritage system, whilst also maintaining the valuations of the local population. Noting for instance the number of mentions to the Convent of Christ and the Church of Saint John the Baptist, the latter located in the centre of the city, these can be seen as some of the prime assets in the territory; however, care should be extended to prevent them from becoming too central, and reducing tourism to these centralities. In that sense, a path to sustainability can be the incorporation of the perspectives of local actors to increase the number of heritage sites identified and promoted to tourists. This study serves in that sense to provide a first glimpse from the tourists’ side regarding key locations and sites, which can serve as a counter-weight to other studies done in the territory (Almeida, 2018, forthcoming) to provide political and economic solutions.

The main limitation of this study lies in a sample with little expressive power (convenience sampling was used, with few respondents), as well as the times and locations of applications. We hope in further studies to increase its results by applying it in different months and locations in the city.



Heritage, sustainable tourism and development offer tourists the prospect of enjoying better touristic experiences, which are more enriching and have greater depth. The safeguarding of heritage resources and cultural-historic activities, landscape and nature, as well as all endogenous resources which can be enjoyed by tourists and local community present the key to preserve the cultural identity of territories and for a more effective sustainable development.

Using tourism as a vehicle for such forms of development presents challenges and opportunities to local and regional institutions, for them to incorporate research into their practice of conservation, promotion and management of private enterprise. In particular, understanding motivations and key assets can provide a benchmark for better policy, and constitutes a first step in engaging the theoretical ambitions of sustainable development and putting it into practice. These challenges can serve to better promote territories and to fully mobilise the potential inherent in territories – something we hope we can contribute to through dedicated academic research.





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