Cultural heritage tourism is a large and growing business. Worldwide, heritage tourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry, and not only does visiting historic sites rank third among United States’ tourists favorite activities, but “heritage” tourists are well-educated, cosmopolitan, more inclined to stay longer in a particular area, are interested in authenticity, and – perhaps not surprisingly – tend to spend more money on average than the average traveler. If communities are considering an investment in their tourist infrastructure, they should look no further than heritage tourism for a high potential return on investment.
What is heritage tourism? One useful definition is a “personal encounter with traditions, history, and culture. Heritage tourism is based upon the concept that each community has a story to tell.” Heritage tourism is all about providing the visitor – or even current residents! – with a deeper and more immediate understanding and appreciation of place and history, and how they have endured through to influence the present.
It is not hard to see how food fits into the heritage tourism framework. Heritage tourists are interested in a wide range of experiential activities – eating and drinking unique products in new and enjoyable places chief among them. Especially given the increasing popularity of local foods and food tourism, adding a heritage component to a tourism plan would be a wise, and relatively low-cost, way to draw in customers already in the area to experience other heritage sites like museums, buildings, or historic sites.
One group of businesses in Central Virginia that is ripe for more heritage tourist development is the region’s cideries. Cider has as long a history in Central Virginia as nearly any other food or drink. It was the drink of choice for colonists in the 17th- and 18th centuries, when apple orchards featuring a dizzying array of cultivars covered farms all over the Commonwealth. Thomas Jefferson’s drink of choice was a cider brewed with local Hewes crabapples, and even children would drink cider for breakfast. (Alcoholic beverages like cider were safer than the bacteria-filled water sources of the day, so it’s not an exaggeration to say people drank it like water.) Eventually cider’s popularity began to wane – it was overtaken by, among other things, beer. Many of the wide variety of apple types used to make cider – many of which were not particularly palatable – began to fall out of favor. (For a full-length exploration of the early rise and wane of cider in the US, check out George Mason University Professor David Williams’s piece “Hard Cider’s Mysterious Demise.”) All of this is to say that Virginia has a rich heritage to share when it comes to cider – a history that some cideries have shared, others have not, and could certainly be best shared collaboratively.
In terms of tourism development, Central Virginia’s cideries already have a number of things going for them, including a successful Cider Week (the first event of its kind in the country) that featured dozens of events across multiple locations and has increased the beverage’s profile in the area, a number of thriving businesses with beautiful grounds and well-established distribution networks, and – perhaps most important – a product that has experienced an exponential growth in popularity over the last few years. However, they have not yet fully taken advantage of the marketing or development potential in highlighting their heritage bona fides.
One of the more popular methods for experiencing heritage tourism is through “trails” – networks of sites, businesses, restaurants, museums, and lodgings that all share a common historical significance or theme. Virginia is certainly no stranger to trails: Anyone who has driven the highways of Virginia probably recognizes the sign for Civil War Trail, a network of dozens of sites and hundreds of interpretive markers that follow the history of the war throughout Virginia as well as Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina. Slightly less historic but more locally to Charlottesville, the Brew Ridge Trail provides beer tourists with information about the area’s breweries. Given the relative geographic proximity of Central Virginia’s cideries and their shared history, a Cider Trail would provide an excellent platform for promoting food heritage and increasing their share of local tourists interested in the substantial historical assets of the area.
How can the cider industry take advantage of this growing interest in heritage and become part of Virginia’s successful network of other heritage trails? The National Trust for Historic Preservation cites five principles that are the keys to an effective heritage tourism plan. Based on these principles, here are some steps that cideries can take better take advantage of their heritage assets:
- Define your purpose: The popularity of cider is certainly on the rise, but Virginia’s cideries have not yet successfully marketed their ties to local history to their maximum potential to draw more customers and add depth to their brand.
- Tell your own story: Even if cideries had no historical relevance in Virginia, visiting them would be enjoyable and unique tasting experience that many people – even those familiar with wine and beer – have tried. However, cideries have the opportunity to pair that experience with learning about a little-appreciated aspect of Colonial life on the very land on which it happened, and providing people with a literal taste of life from hundreds of years ago. Cideries have a unique story to tell that pairs food and history in an unusually interactive way.
- Preserve and protect your resources: “Heritage cider” can use many apple varieties that are native or have a long history in the area – such as the Albemarle Pippin and Old Virginia Winesap that Albemarle CiderWorks use in some of their ciders – that may otherwise disappear.
- Make tourism sites come alive: Bringing heritage and history alive can be accomplished in many ways – demonstrations on how cider was made back in Colonial times, interactive exhibits, guided “cider trail” tours, or even just a simple pamphlet (much like the Brew Ridge Trail has available at each of their associated breweries) help visitors make thematic, cultural, or historical connections between the sites they visit and gain a more meaningful travel experience.
- Collaborate with partners: Cideries should collaborate not only among themselves, but with the area’s wineries and breweries as well. Many wineries and breweries either have historically significant grounds or products themselves: the land on which Jefferson Vineyards grows its grapes has roots going back to our 3rd President himself, and Crozet’s Starr Hill brewery features Monticello Reserve Ale, based on a recipe commonly used at Jefferson’s estate. Finally, the perennially popular Carter Mountain Orchard could co-sponsor educational programs or events that link the entire life cycle of the apple and its history in the area. These types of connections not only diversify a tourist’s options, but would allow cideries to tap into larger networks of tourist sites that already draw significant numbers of people.