Heritage as experience: the case of Greenwich, UK

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Visit Britain’s research in 35 countries around the world indicates that the country’s core strengths as a visitor destination are heritage, history, pageantry and culture (Heritage Lottery Fund 2010). The UK Government confirmed plans to restructure English Heritage, investing nearly £90 million over the next few years. English Heritage is body to manage and promote the properties and sites in the National Heritage Collection, numbering more than 400 sites and an additional of £1.6 billion being invested through the Heritage Lottery Fund (Department for Culture Media and Sport 2014). This shows the importance of the heritage industry in the UK.

Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time and is situated alongside the River Thames in South East London and is a World Heritage Site (WHS).

Since 1972, World Heritage Sites have been designed through the UNESCO World Heritage Convention because of their ‘outstanding universal significance’ to the international community. There are currently 1,007 cultural, natural and mixed properties and in the UK and its overseas territories, 28 sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List: 18 in England, four in Scotland, two in Wales, one in Northern Ireland and three in the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies (UNESCO 2015).

The inclusion of Greenwich in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in December 1997 as UK’s 15th WHS stands out because of the international significance and variety of its architecture, the high degree of authenticity of its buildings and landscape and its maritime and royal history.

Greenwich is ranked among the most famous and prestigious heritage sites in the world.  The Royal Parks Review describes Greenwich as “the London equivalent of Versailles – a royal palace of classical beauty dominating the Thames, but offset, like some Italian painting, by the presence of the park, soft green hill, trees and astronomer’s castle” (English Heritage 1999, p.5) which makes it a perfect site for heritage experience research.

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No two visitors receive the same experience (Lounsburya and Polik 1992) and therefore, understanding experiences from the perspective of visitors has become an arena of  growing interest to researchers. Visitors are moving from passively gazing at built heritage and landscapes to wanting to participate in and engage with the destination (Urry 2002). Engaging in tourism is considered to be a “potential source of happiness and well-being” (Sharpley and Stone 2012, p.1). The best experiences are when a visitor takes an active part and is completely immersed in the situation that they are experiencing (Csikszentmihalyi 1992). Given the importance of creating an experience in a heritage destination and the increasing annual growth in visitors to such places, research in this area is important and timely.

This research, which is conducted by Gayathri Kanagasapthy from School of Tourism, explores the field of heritage experiences and centres on experiences from the perspective of flow  with the four realms (absorption, immersion, active participation and passive participation) of the experience economy(Pine and Gilmore 1998) as visitors become co-creators during the experiential process, thus enabling them to enjoy a highly personalised and flexible experience.

A quantitative research approach is adopted, using a visitor survey to obtain the required data. A total of 648 respondents was analysed. An experience model was proposed and is being tested with structural equation modelling method.

This research, therefore, makes a contribution to knowledge by providing an understanding of the important factors that contribute in creating a unique and personalised experience for visitors and, as a result, informing destination management and marketing. Additionally, from the scale of heritage tourism, these findings benefits the academic world as well as an industry.

Contact: gkanagasapathy@bournemouth.ac.uk