Tulsa will likely never be a mainstream tourist destination. We are not likely to make the list of even the 1,000 places to visit before you die. But that doesn't mean we can't make some money from the tourist trade.
Back in the mid '90s, my wife and I were visiting County Donegal, shopping for sweaters in Ardara, a coastal town known for its tweeds and knitwear.
My wife struck up a conversation with a young German tourist named Max, who was excited to learn that we were from Oklahoma. He was fascinated by severe weather, he told us, and he had hopes of coming here someday to chase tornadoes.
Our visit to that woolen shop was part of our second trip to Ulster in two years. We had come to see the homeland of one of my ancestors, a Presbyterian minister who immigrated to America in 1769.
During our visits we worshipped at the church where he preached, attended the 350th anniversary festival of the church where he had been baptized, sat in libraries poring over land records and presbytery minutes, attended an old-fashioned dance, and walked the walls of Derry. We met some wonderful, welcoming people and drove past breathtaking scenery.
A couple of years later, we were touring a historic home in Cape Cod. When the tour guide, an elderly lady named Kay, learned we were from Oklahoma, she told us she was born there, in a once-bustling boom town in the Burbank oil field in Osage country. Officially known as Denoya, it was better known as Whizbang.
Her father had been an engineer with Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Co. (ITIO), and the family moved from one oil field to another, all over Oklahoma -- Drumright, Seminole, Bartlesville, Tulsa.
Kay came out to Tulsa with her sister in 1998. They had last been in the city in 1936.
During their visit, they stayed at the downtown Doubletree and made day trips into the Osage oil country, around Creek County, and down to Seminole, looking for traces of the Oklahoma they had known. I gave them a driving tour of Tulsa, which culminated in dinner at the Spudder steakhouse, the closest thing Tulsa has to an oil and gas museum.
Max's dreams of storm chasing, Kay's retracing of her childhood in Oklahoma, and my travels in the footsteps of my Ulster ancestors are all examples of cultural heritage tourism, defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as "traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes historic, cultural and natural resources."
Cities and towns that are far from the usual tourist attractions are finding that, by preserving, packaging, and marketing the unique aspects of their culture and history, they can attract tourists -- and tourism dollars -- from all over the world.
Cultural and heritage tourists are looking for places where they can connect with the authentic essence of a culture or a historical event. It may be a place from a tourist's personal history, his family tree, or his ethnic heritage. Or it may be a place and a culture that the tourist has only visited in his imagination -- the hometown of a famous person he admires, the setting for a favorite novel, or the location where a favorite movie was filmed.
Since the early '90s, the National Trust has provided encouragement and guidance for communities seeking to develop cultural heritage tourism, sponsoring pilot projects and collecting and disseminating lessons learned from successes and setbacks. A Web site devoted to the topic, culturalheritagetourism.org, outlines the basics, spotlights success stories, and provides data on economic impact.
Ahead of the Pack
In western North Carolina in the '90s, a nonprofit called Handmade in America published a book of driving tours, linking studios where visitors could encounter traditional crafts like pottery, weaving, and woodworking.
In addition to helping tourists find the artisans, the organization helped the artisans improve their business and hospitality skills. The result has been increased sales, not only for these craftsmen, but for retail in the towns along the trails.
Any one studio wouldn't have done much to boost the local economy, but presented as a collection of linked attractions, the studios give arts and crafts enthusiasts a reason to plan a vacation to the region.
For whatever reason, the people we pay to promote Tulsa to the world -- the Tulsa Metro Chamber's Convention and Visitors Bureau -- seem uncomfortable promoting the unique aspects of our region. They position Tulsa as superior to and separate from the rest of Oklahoma, an oasis of sophistication in a cultural desert.
It's a distinctly Midtown Money Belt point of view, and it makes Tulsans seem like a bunch of insecure, provincial rubes, putting on airs -- the urban equivalent of Hyacinth Bucket.
While we should be proud of the cultural amenities that make Tulsa a great place to live, our tourism marketing should focus on what sets our region apart from the rest of the world.
A Milanese woman who lives a few miles from La Scala and the salons of Versace and Prada isn't likely to visit Oklahoma for the opera or Utica Square shopping, but she might come here to eat a chicken fried steak on Route 66, experience Oklahoma! in an open-air theater, or attend a powwow.
A resident of Berlin wouldn't cross the pond to see a Tulsa production of the plays of Bertolt Brecht, but he might travel here to two-step across Cain's curly maple dance floor, search out Ponyboy Curtis's hangouts, or attend the annual Kenneth Hagin Campmeeting -- depending on his particular passions.
Tulsa should position itself not as an enclave of Eastern sophistication but as the capital of a region where visitors can experience the untamed, exuberant spirit of the American West in all its variety.
With Tulsa as a base of operations, a visitor could make daytrips to Coffeyville, where townspeople gave the notorious Dalton gang their just desserts, to historic African-American towns settled by Creek freedmen, to Ponca City and the architectural legacy of oil man E. W. Marland, to Foyil and the World's Largest Totem Pole, to the oil patch exhibit at Woolaroc, to the world's largest private gun collection in Claremore.
Here in Tulsa, the visitor could experience the spirit of the West in the artwork at Gilcrease, in the oil mogul one-upmanship that built our art deco skyscrapers and our beautiful churches, and in the religious flamboyance of the ORU campus.
But there's more to successful heritage tourism than marketing what we already have. We need to improve existing attractions and events and develop new ones to help connect visitors to the cultural and historical experiences they seek.
For example, to accommodate Americans who came to Northern Ireland seeking their Scotch-Irish roots, the Ulster-American Folk Park was opened in 1976, bringing together recreations of an 18th century Ulster village and a 19th century western Pennsylvania town, a museum exhibit depicting the emigrant voyage to America, and a genealogical research library.
Here in Tulsa, we might create museums devoted to severe weather, the '20s oil boom, or Western Swing. In addition to a museum, Tulsa might develop an annual Western Swing festival.
Local attractions can provide interpretive information through old fashioned means like historical markers and brochures or with high-tech methods that take advantage of the ubiquitous mobile phone by directing visitors to dial a special number to hear historical narration.
Some of that Route 66 Vision 2025 money could be used to educate the owners of roadside motels about the importance of keeping their neon signs and historic appearance, perhaps even providing matching funds to help with restoration.
We'd do well to learn from the example of the Cherokee Nation. For more than 40 years, the Cherokee Heritage Center at Park Hill, south of Tahlequah, has told the nation's story through reconstructed villages, museum exhibits, and a moving outdoor drama.
Now the Cherokee Nation is working with heritage tourism consultants to develop historic and cultural sites throughout its lands -- finding ways to make these places accessible and meaningful to the visitor while preserving their historic character.
Tulsa will never be an Orlando or Las Vegas. We're not a major city or a world capital. We don't have ski slopes or an ocean nearby.
What we have is a unique history and character, and if our civic leaders would stop being embarrassed about it, Tulsa could become known worldwide as the best place to experience the land of cowboys and Indians, outlaws and wildcatters, fiddlers and faith healers.
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