Now that the pandemic is almost a thing of the past, travelers are about to experience theirs. After two years of lockdown and quarantine, Americans are embarking on ambitious journeys to uncover history – and it’s taking them to some remarkable places.
A Priceline survey predicts a banner year for historic tourism, also known as heritage tourism. If you’ve ever traveled anywhere to experience artifacts and activities representing the stories and people of the past and present, then congratulations – you’re a heritage tourist. (And by the way, that’s the textbook definition of heritage tourism given by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency.)
A third of Americans say heritage trips are a meaningful way to travel, according to Priceline. Interestingly, the younger clientele (18-34 years old) shows the greatest interest in heritage tourism this year.
I have met many of them in recent weeks as the tourist season begins in Europe. I’m traveling through Turkey in April and will be in Greece next month, both known for their rich histories.
Here are some examples of historical tourism
If you’ve ever been to a place that deepens your understanding of world history, then you’ve been a heritage traveler.
- The most visited historical site is the Forbidden City in Beijing. It attracted nearly 20 million visitors in 2019, the last normal year for tourism. The remains of Covid could threaten its top spot in 2022. The Palace of Versailles comes second (8 million annual visits), followed by the Lincoln Memorial and the Colosseum in Rome. Both have received just under 8 million annual visitors.
- People visit historic sites for different reasons. If you are a spiritual or denominational tourist, you might want to look to other famous historical sites. The holy city of Mecca is considered the number one destination for religious tourists (20 million annual visitors). Also on the list are the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul. I will explore faith-based tourism in a future story.
- Each country has its own list of the best destinations for heritage travel, some of which are not as well known. In Turkey, they include impressive places such as Nemrut Dag and its five huge limestone statues created by King Antiochos at the end of the Hellenistic period, as well as the underground cities of Cappadocia, the underground shelters where the natives hid from the ruthless. Hittite invaders.
If you want more than just sun and fun on your next getaway, you can find a quick list of the best historic sights by visiting the UNESCO World Heritage List. Of course, there are plenty of other sites worth checking out, but this list is one of the best places to start.
Historic destinations brace for more visitors this summer
Although places of interest for heritage tourism are everywhere, some regions, especially Turkey, have a particular demand.
At Dalyan Resort & Spa Hotel, for example, history frames your entire experience. From the banks of the Dalyan Çayı River, visitors can see the famous Lycian rock tombs. These impressive facades, built in the 4th century, are all that remains of a once flourishing civilization. Resort owners Fulya and Yucel Okutur say the area has attracted a growing number of history buffs who charter boats to navigate the winding river and snap photos of the crumbling rock faces.
Olympos Lodge, a boutique hotel on the Mediterranean coast, is also a stone’s throw from Mount Olympos, another Lycian city. Co-owner Ayşen Özkan Şimşek says the pandemic has given visitors an opportunity to reflect on a deeper meaning behind travel, so visiting a place that has a rich history makes it all the more appealing. Properties like Olympos Lodge tend to get a good number of visitors from Eastern Europe, but with the ongoing war, she says Western Europe and North America are taking over this summer. .
In Antalya, Hotel Tuvana is also in the right place at the right time. Its location, in the central district of Kaleiçi, allows guests to walk to the main historical attractions of the city. These include the famous Tekeli Mehmet Paşa Mosque, the Ancient Port and Hadrian’s Gate, according to Nermin Tankut, who runs the Ottoman-style boutique hotel.
“People are looking for an experience,” she says. “They want to take a walking tour and see the gates – but they also want more from their vacation.”
Is it summer for a heritage tour?
If you haven’t booked your summer vacation yet and are looking for a heritage vacation, there’s still time, even if you’re cutting it. International airfares are still down from 2019 levels — they were 19% lower than pre-pandemic levels over spring break — but some destinations have more than rebounded. The average economy-class round-trip airfare to Italy costs more than $1,300. Maybe the Colosseum can wait until summer 2023.
Airlines are scrambling to meet demand. European airlines, keen to serve hot Turkish Riviera destinations like Antalya, have been unable to find enough staff to add new flights, according to tourism insiders. Turkish Airlines will operate 388 direct weekly flights to 47 cities in 29 countries from Antalya, Dalaman, Bodrum-Milas and İzmir, according to the carrier.
Despite all the interest in heritage tourism, there is still plenty of room for more visitors. But it depends where you want to go. Ali Şafak Öztürk, president of Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort, an all-inclusive resort in Antalya, recalls a recent conversation with director Guy Ritchie, who was visiting his property to make the upcoming film Operation Fortune. Ritchie, like many visitors, was captivated by the ancient city of Aspendos, with its well-preserved Roman amphitheater. “He was saying it’s so beautiful and we have so much history, but it’s not well known,” he says.
This is the dilemma faced by destinations with historic attractions. If you improve marketing, you may be overwhelmed with visitors. For now, properties like Regnum are happy to welcome their guests to play golf and take a day trip to the Roman ruins. What if they all came for the story? This would fundamentally change the way these historic destinations work.
Pelin Tanca, co-founder of TAY Istanbul, a travel and event management company, says historical tourism is more complicated than it looks. Most visitors come with more than one thing on their to-do list. They’re here for a destination wedding and they want to see the Roman ruins. Or they want to play nine holes and then see Hadrian’s Gate. Doing this requires some expertise.
“In the same trip, you can hike the Lycian Way, visit ancient ruins, sample delicacies, and at the end lie on the beach,” she says.
What if you wanted to take a historic tour this summer?
Find a qualified travel consultant. You will likely need an expert to help you plan a heritage vacation. Visit the American Society of Travel Advisors site and find someone who specializes in the destination you plan to visit.
Consider a tour. Historical tours are difficult to plan and execute. There are so many moving parts and there are often language barriers. A tour operator can help you reduce this, and you might also get a better deal since tour operators buy their travel components in bulk. You can find a list of approved tour operators on the United States Tour Operators Association website.
Get a guide. If you’re not going on a tour, at least consider hiring a professional guide. You can walk around the ruins on your own and google all the sites, but better find someone who can show you around. This is especially true for sites that could be dangerous, with rocky outcrops or cliffs. You can check Viator or Getyourguide for more details. But find a pro. Seriously.
One thing is clear: the summer of 2022 will be that of historic discovery. And for many Americans, it’s not a question of whether they’ll take a heritage tour in the coming months, but which one.