Can we make tourists love the intangible?

Mimir's Well by Annie Thuesen, PhD Student at Institute for Northern Studies

I recently read in a 1997 book on island tourism that Orkney – with its fickle climate and difficult location – would forever be exempt from “the spectre of overuse and overdevelopment which frequently haunts many small island destinations”.

Still, much has changed since 1997. Back then, Orkney received approximately 80,000 to 100,000 visitors a year. 20 years later, the number surpassed 245,000. Much of this is due to the rising popularity of cruise tourism, but it also mirrors a worldwide trend: in 1997, there were 584 million tourists in the world. In 2017, the number had more than doubled to 1.3 billion.

In Orkney, this increase has meant a gradual change in attitude towards tourists: they are no longer merely people to be welcomed, but also people to be managed.

Hence, in 2017, OIC and Highlands and Islands Enterprise commissioned an “Orkney Volume Tourism Management Study”, which looked at particularly coach and cruise tourism to Orkney and how best to cope with it. This report, based on surveys and consultations with public sector organisations and tourism businesses in Orkney, showed a growing concern that the crowding experienced by visitors at key attractions such as the Italian Chapel and Skara Brae were damaging the long-term appeal of Orkney, and hence the sustainability of our tourism sector.

A visitor survey carried out by VisitScotland and OIC, also in 2017, supported this view: when visitors were given an open-ended question about any negative experiences they had had in Orkney, 11 percent mentioned crowding – on par with the weather and only surpassed by complaints over transport options.

So the spectre of overuse is starting to haunt these shores after all. Yet, as the volume tourism report noted, the problem is restricted to a few key sites and areas. Hence, one of the study’s recommendations for better tourism management was quite simply to spread out the visitors more evenly across Orkney. A common-sense idea, not least because some of the less visited parts of Orkney might well welcome the extra business.

However, if it were easy, everyone would do it. In reality, however, most tourist destinations are struggling with exactly this problem: sites and areas that are overcrowded right next to sites and areas that are completely overlooked. And try as they might, they usually find it very difficult to change the tourist flows from one to the other.

Not because tourism mode means mindlessly following the crowd, but because tourists are subject to certain restrictions – on their time, wallet and local knowledge – that most other tourists are also subject to, and so they end up doing roughly similar things: those that seem to be “safe bets”, guaranteed to give a satisfactory experience and value for money and which are easy to get to. Such as a 12th century cathedral right on the main street of Kirkwall with free access, or spectacular, well-managed monuments which have even been given the reassuring quality stamp of “World Heritage Site”.

And it becomes a self-perpetuating system: when special buses and regular tours are deployed to cater to the many tourists wanting to see the World Heritage Site, it makes that site even more visible and easily accessible, and hence more popular.

The 2017 tourism management report, mindful of this, suggested more public transport to make it easier for independent tourists to take the road less travelled, as well as support for tour operators and guides to offer more diverse itineraries.

For this to be economically sustainable, however, the tourists must somehow be convinced that the alternative they’re offered is at least as satisfying an experience as the key site that they miss out on. This is an obvious challenge, certainly in terms of our heritage sites.

One of the decisive factors for the tourism appeal of a heritage site is monumentality. This is what lends the Cathedral and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney much of their appeal, even to people who have no particular historical or archaeological interest.

In contrast, consider the wealth of Norse sites that Orkney possesses besides the Cathedral. Most other tourist destinations would (and do) go to great lengths to exploit even the most spurious link to the ever-popular Vikings. Yet in Orkney, sites like Quoygrew and Tuquoy on Westray, Cubbie Roo’s Castle on Wyre and the stronghold on the Brough of Deerness are peripheral in the tourism offer. Natural features mean they will always be more time-consuming to access from the tourism centre of Kirkwall than the Ring of Brodgar or the Italian Chapel, and they also look considerably more humble than those alternatives. So who can blame the tourists for choosing against them?

However, heritage is more than impressive monuments. It also encompasses intangible heritage such as stories and mythologies, traditional skills and customs. Resources that are plentiful in Orkney, and which could maybe be utilised even more than they are today for tourism dispersal.

 Certainly, judging from the 2019 Trends paper from VisitScotland, there are good opportunities for using such resources in a tourism context.

The paper for instance highlights pilgrimage as a travel trend popular among modern tourists looking for a slower and more spiritual holiday. And of course we do have a pilgrimage trail in Orkney, the St Magnus Way, which uses some of our richest Norse intangible heritage, the Orkneyinga Saga and the story of St Magnus.

It is also a good example of the use of digital resources for conveying intangible heritage. The St Magnus Way app contains route maps, photos, audio files and documents telling modern pilgrims the story of the saint, while also inviting them to reflect on the modern landscape and their own lives as they follow the route. With its 55 miles in total, the St Magnus Way isn’t for the many visitors who just have a few days, or even half a day here, but maybe more could be done to make visitors aware of the possibility of just walking a stretch of the way?

Other trail apps using Orkney’s intangible heritage are also emerging for visitors with less time, such as the Orkney Folklore Trail focusing on traditional stories connected to locations in the West Mainland, or the Kirkwall Heritage app, which covers a thousand years of the town’s history in its five short trails. Maybe those kind of initiatives should be made more visible to tourists if we want to increase dispersal?

And trail apps are not the only way in which the omnipresence of smartphones has made it easier to create an attraction out of intangible heritage. Heritage sites around the world have also turned to tools such as augmented reality and game apps to give visitors a more immersive experience and better understanding of the past. Maybe that could be a way to attract visitors to sites such as the Norse, which are poor in tangible heritage, but rich in intangible?

Might a visit to St Magnus Kirk on Egilsay not be a bigger draw if one could go there with an app that used augmented reality, storytelling audio and game features to put one in the midst of the action 900 years ago, during the fateful meeting between cousins Earl Hakon and Earl Magnus that ended in Magnus’ death at the hands of Lifolf the cook? Or what about a trip to Earl’s Bu at Orphir to watch the Yule feast brawl between trouble-makers Svein Asleifarson and Svein Breast-Rope, which ended with two dead bodies and a very hasty escape through the skylight on Asleifarson’s part?

Another trend highlighted in VisitScotland’s 2019 Trends paper was the desire on tourists’ part to learn new creative skills while on vacation. In Orkney, we are very good at inviting tourists to see how arts and crafts, food and drink are produced on the islands, but there might be even more of a potential for workshops and masterclasses, from half a day to several days, on anything from baking bere bannocks to making bridal cogs. This could be a way of making money, giving people a good time, dispersing tourists and keeping the Orcadian heritage alive all at the same time.

There is every reason to improve tourism dispersal in Orkney if we want to protect our key sites and the positive image of Orkney as a destination. But tourism dispersal is difficult; better transport options and information about alternatives may well be necessary, but not sufficient to change tourism behaviour. We also need to offer tourists exciting alternatives to key attractions, which requires lateral thinking, experiments and investment – for instance in ways of sharing our intangible heritage.