Being a professional historian, an inveterate traveler, and an ardent exponent of life on the plains, I have a longstanding interest in heritage tourism — especially heritage tourism of a particular kind. In the twentieth century a distinctive profile emerged for that wily tourist known as the “independent traveler.” Lately a new acronym has emerged in the trade literature — FIT, which means Free Independent Traveler. I like it.
Lay aside your conceptions of tourism as something that operates with charter buses, cruise ships, packaged tours, or group things of any sort. To pull in custom today, you have to match wits with the FITs.
Which are, what, exactly? The free independent traveler has some common characteristics:
- FITs write their own itineraries. They don’t like packages or linear journeys.
- They are tech-savvy masters of digital communications.
- They travel on their own, often by personal vehicle.
- They are adventuresome and open to unexpected things.
- They have disposable income, quite a bit of it.
- They respect places and communities, because they love them.
Let me reiterate those last two things. FITs have money, and they are good guests. These are the tourists you want.
And what do they want? It’s not that complicated.
- Real things in real places. Not waterslides, or whatever you may be thinking about building for them. Instead, identify, preserve, and market the good things you already have.
- Stories. This is Advertising 101, really. To promote an attraction or experience, you have to attach narrative to it. Preferably true narrative. Nor do you have to dumb it down. Layered, rich narratives are good.
- Active and interactive experiences. Things you can touch, climb on, experience in tactile and sensory ways.
Like, I don’t know, perhaps the historic Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge spanning the Missouri River at Bismarck?
The old NP bridge is a real thing with a powerful sense of place. In fact, it is essential to that Missouri-valley sense of place that defines the twin towns of Bismarck and Mandan. FITs can get into this.
Especially if you tell the story, or stories. The stories of George Shattuck Morison, the greatest bridge-builder in American history; of the hard-working blokes who went down in the caissons, sank the foundations, laid the stone, did all the hard work and experienced all the perils of making this real thing palpable; of Theodore Roosevelt and all the other venturesome cattlemen who poured across the bridge with their beasts to invest the Badlands and the whole northern plains; and a hundred other narratives stacked like pancakes.
As for interactive experiences, that part is a slam dunk. People keep talking about a “pedestrian bridge” after the BNSF takes its engines and trains off. That’s not the right word at all, “pedestrian.” This bridge is a platform for experience and engagement. Find a word that says that.
Oh, and one more thing. We keep referring to the historic bridge as “endangered.” Like it is some sort of liability. It is, rather, a resource, and more than that, an opportunity. “It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself,” Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography. “But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready.” Are we FIT for it? Once again, what would Teddy do?