Problematizing Cultural Events in Europe’s Tourist Cities

There is little debate about the significant role cultural events can play in driving a city’s tourism industry. The European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) Initiative, an annual cultural program hosted by a different European city each year, is a leader in cultural tourism. The year-long series of events is held in large international cities, such as Paris and Dublin, as well as in smaller cities such as Genoa, and is credited as one of the European Union’s most successful cultural projects. Yet, in “Cultural Events and Cultural Tourism Development: Lessons from the European Capitals of Culture,” author Yi-De Liu questions that success,  examining the ECOC between 1985 and 2013 to point out the shortcomings of programs that use cultural events to boost a city’s reputation and tourism industry.

Liu analyzes five intended impacts of the ECOC Initiative on European cities’ tourism industries. First, he considers the “experience economy,” the staged and themed events that are unique to a city and distinguish it as an exciting place to visit. A similar impact, image shaping, involves building a city’s image as a cultural destination for tourists. Urban regeneration, the third impact, involves identifying and implementing long-term goals to improve the quality of life for local residents. The fourth, “cultural impact,” involves the effect that hosting the ECOC has on the demand for arts and cultural production among the local community. The fifth impact, the establishment of partnerships, involves encouraging collaborative relationships between a city’s tourism sector and its cultural sector, between the public and private sectors, between a region and its citizens, and between different European regions.

After evaluating each of these intended impacts, Liu finds that the ECOC Initiative often falls short of generating a long-term increase in visitors and economic revenue. Although in some cities the ECOC did temporarily attract more tourists and raise the city’s international image, this boost tapered off after the duration of the host year.  Despite these observations, Liu maintains the idea that event-based efforts to increase tourism can be a beneficial strategy for cities.  Such event-based efforts, however, need to be sustainable over a long period of time rather than concentrated within the one-year duration of the ECOC Initiative. Liu suggests that creating a plan that prioritizes smaller, “everyday” cultural events and experiences, in conjunction with the ongoing development of local cultural amenities, may have a more lasting impact on a city’s perceived image as a cultural destination. This strategy can bolster a city’s sense of distinctiveness and authenticity, involve more local residents, encourage a consistent flow of tourists, and contribute to economic regeneration. 

Liu, Yi-De. 2014. "Cultural Events and Cultural Tourism Development: Lessons from the European Capitals of Culture." European Planning Studies 22(3): 498-514. DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2012.752442

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