We had a wonderful chat with Professor William Straw, the Director of McGill Institute for the Study of Canada Professor, Department of Art History and Communications Studies.
Professor Straw is interested in a range of topics, most of them having to do with media and cities. He is a world-renowned expert in urban culture. We asked him three simple questions, and he gave us sagacious answers.
-What makes a city a popular tourist destination?
When we hear “tourism”, we used think about sea, sun and sand. However, today, cities are becoming destinations. People want to see cities other than their own. And what makes a city interesting is its creative energies. Here, we are talking about a diverse range of creative workers (from bankers to artists, from educators to software developers.) Creative people are usually young. They make money AND they enjoy spending money. They demand better restaurants, better festivals and better cultural activities. All those things make a city a popular tourist destination.
-Then, what can a small city, which lacks creative energy do?
They have to focus and differentiate. The smartest thing is to become a university town. Even though students will move on upon graduation, you will consistently have a critical mass of youth. Another radical thing they can do is to look at what Ireland did. They offered financial incentives to certain creative classes. Third, cities can also transform their old industrial architectures into art hubs. Fourth, they can be perceived as a liberal town if they grant more liberty to nightlife. Finally, they can create an international festival. There are so many small towns in the world that are famous for their festivals.
-Why do people visit other cities?
Global competition among cities is fierce. Every city wants to attract tourists. Back in the day, mega structures used to be necessary. Big buildings, marquee towers were landmarks. Today, that has changed. People prefer a variety of small pleasures to big, monumental buildings or other attractions. Monumentality has transformed into variety. Today, there are two things a tourist want to see in a city: streets and scenes.
First, big shopping malls, chain stores do exist in every city. That’s why people want to see streets full of different, authentic and modern stores: An artisanal coffee shop next to an art gallery next to a local clothing designer… That’s what attracts tourists.
Second, they want to see local scenes: Things that describe the unique soul of that city… They want to experience the energy generated by busy streets, music coming from bars, people lining up for festivals and events… Things that they can’t experience in their hometowns. Also, today, everything in life is in bite-size. People want bite-size touristic experiences from cities. That’s why when New York Times publishes an article titled “Portland in 24 hours” people rush to see that city.