If President Obama is serious about enhancing tourism in the United States, then he should also be serious about promoting American history.
Last Thursday Obama went to Disney World to announce a “new national tourism strategy” focused on creating jobs and making the United States the “top tourist destination in the world.” He reminded his audience about the Travel Promotion Act, a bill that he signed into law two years ago that resulted in a nonprofit organization called Brand USA. By making it easier for
foreign tourists to visit the United States, the President envisions a boost to our economy. It is a great idea.
I hope that Obama’s new plan to increase tourism does not forget our most treasured destinations: historical places and the organizations that promote them. I wonder if he knows that a key product in “Brand USA” is not doing very well right now.
In the last couple of years, the federal government has made drastic cuts to American history programs. For example, “Save America’s Treasures,” a program that offered grants to rescue local historical buildings and artifacts in jeopardy of being lost, was eliminated. So was the Preserve America Grant Program, an initiative designed to support heritage tourism and historic preservation.
Similarly, funding for the Institute of Museums and Library Services, an organization with a mission of inspiring libraries and museums to foster civic and cultural engagement, was cut by $44 million. The Teaching American History Program, which provided support for the strengthening of American history in schools with the goal of creating a generation of young people who would be engaged with our past (and might even spend money some day on history tourism), has been recently eliminated.
In my own backyard, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state agency commissioned to promote the Commonwealth’s history, continues to struggle to fulfill its mission after massive funding cuts. Over one hundred employees were furloughed. The Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg is now opened only four days a week. Other historic sites were forced to close or drastically reduce operating hours. Some are being run entirely by volunteers.
One of the largest sectors of tourism in the United States is in utter disrepair. The President’s bold, new initiative will be useless unless something is done to fix our broken historical infrastructure. International tourists will not come if the destinations they hope to visit are closed.
I am sure that places like Independence Hall. Gettysburg National Park, and Faneuil Hall will continue to attract visitors. But less popular sites, scattered across the American landscape and currently struggling, should also be part of the story that we tell to visitors.
While I am optimistic that Obama’s plan to target foreign tourists will help our economy, we also need to make visits to historical sites and parks a more attractive option for American citizens. As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them will be looking for opportunities to learn new things, stimulate their minds, and keep busy. Many will accomplish this by visiting historical places and, in the process, spending money on hotels, restaurants, and visitor fees.
But there is an even greater reason why the promotion of history tourism could help America. History serves a civic function. Without history, our collective identity is erased. We look to the past to understand who we are in the present.
At the same time, history teaches us that the past is sometimes like a foreign country – a place where they do things differently. By learning about the lives of people who lived in this foreign country we can develop a deeper appreciation of people in our contemporary lives with beliefs or lifestyles we do not understand. When everyone has this kind of empathy, society improves. We learn to listen and understand before casting moral condemnation on those with whom we differ. Barack Obama used to talk about these kinds of things.
When we take it seriously, history teaches us to see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the moment in which we live. It cultivates citizens – active participants in our local, state, and national communities. A visit to a historical site or museum, where visitors get to experience the past first-hand, is a wonderful way of promoting this kind of democratic culture.