Professor Joe Goldblatt
Day after day, thousands of upscale tourists in their early twenties make their official pilgrimmage to the corner of Bedford and Grove streets in New York city’s Greenwich Village to pay homage to an apartment building facade that was first embraced by now ageing baby boomers over twenty – five years ago. They raise their camera phones, crane their necks forward and seem to expect Rachel, Monica, Ross and Chandler to lean out the the window and wave to them.
I have never seen such a phenomenon of local pilgrimage by devotees other than in Lourdes, France or Mecca in Suadi Arabia. As I watch them silently assemble each day, I began to wonder how this type of tourism could be further cultivated in Scotland.
New York City has suffered a major loss of both domestic and international tourists as a result of the global pandemic. The local neighbouring New Jersey residents appear to be returning slowly as tourists as their confidence increases and they often visit a restaurant or a Broadway theatre. However, these day trippers do not contribute as much to the economy as international tourists whose spending is many times more because of the longer duration of their visit that includes overnight accomodations.
Therefore, whilst New York awaits the return of their international fans they are turning to local visitors to entice them to visit local attractions. One of their most successful strategies has been the development of Hudson Park and Little Island that is located adjacent to the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. Miles of bike lanes, beautiful landscaping and modern architectural accents have transformed this once neglected area into another type of mecca, albeit without religious overtones, for local visitors.
One of the keys to the success of New York city as a tourism destination is the range of attractions that appeal to different ages, cultures and income levels. Within a few blocks of our home we have discovered the relatively new Museum of Ice Cream that offers all the ice cream you can consume, a few interactive play areas and a tall curving slide for adults and children. Your momentary sugar rush will only cost you £50 per person. I marvelled at the long queues stretching on both sides of the hot pink entry doors to the Museum and was told that admission is only by pre – booking because it is so popular.
A few blocks away one may visit the famed Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street that is directly across the street from the Gay Liberation Monument sculpted by the international celebrated Sculptor George Segal. This site is also a bastion of pride for folk within the LGBTQ+ community worldwide because the gay liberation movement has its deep roots within this small block.
One of the many lessons that Edinburgh, Glasgow and other destinations in Scotland may learn from our younger cousin New York is the importance of creating a tourism culture that is focused upon driving tourism from specific market segments. For example, within a few blocks in New York city you will regularly see Generation Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, families, seniors, LGBTQ+ and other groups visiting local attractions. I believe that this harmonious mix of tourists is similar to the phenomenon that occurs each August in Edinburgh when multiple festivals welcome visitors who have varied cultural interests ranging from literature to drama to music to visual art to television and even politics, peace and spirituality. I wonder why we cannot cultivate this type of pilgrimage throughout the entire year by developing a stronger strategy to, similar to New York City, promote Scotland as a place of pilgrimmage for ancestrally connected Scots as well as those like me who simply love our bonnie and fascinating land and her people?
Whenever we mention to New Yorkers that we are from Scotland they often immediately gasp and announce, “We always wanted to see where they film Outlander!” Filming locations such as Doune Castle saw tourism footfall increase by as much as 200 percent. However, some believe that the yin and yang of tourism impacts experienced by local residents requires that the experts in charge of cultivating this type of business focus more on managing than marketing in the future. The “moth balling” of Edinburgh’s marketing agency in recent years is one example of how civic leaders are under pressure to focus upon the quality of life issues along side the need to drive economic revenue.
Perhaps this is where New York city, as compared to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and most certainly smaller destinations such as Skye must be viewed with a cautionary tourist gaze. It appears that long ago New York residents conceded that in order to support their economic future they must bear the brunt of millions of tourist steps and all the rubbish, parking issues, noise and other inconveniences that may follow if tourism is not marketing and managed carefully.
However, I believe that Auld Reekie as one example may take the best of the Big Apple in terms of tourism strategies and build a more sustainable future with tourism attractions that are more decentralised such as the plans for the developing the waterfront in Newhaven and perhaps offering new attractions such as an arena in the western part of our city. I further believe that if we use technology applications to develop, promote, market and manage the tourist pilgrimage to our city we may be able to blend our visitors more seamlessly within our neighbourhoods as they pay homage to Robert Burns, Elsie Inglis, Walter Scott, J K Rowling and our many other of our great luminaries. And yes, they are also welcome to capture for posterity with their camera phones where Outlander‘s Sam Heughan once dined or slept.
In the not too distant future, international tourists will desire to return to Scotland and now it is time that we learn from other successful destinations how to best manage their expectations so that during their pilgrimage they come not only to worship the fantasy they have dreamed of seeing but also cherish how creatively and effectively we shall deliver their dreams.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland and is serving as Visiting Professor at New York University’s Jonathan M Tisch Center of Tourism at the School of Professional Studies in New York city.