Elizabeth Kostova, international bestselling author of The Historian and The Shadow Land, was at Bendigo Writers Festival earlier this month. She commented on the similarity of this Victorian regional city and where she lives in North Carolina.
Asheville, once very poor and a cultural backwater, is now a premium tourist destination. With a population of around 90,000, it has a strong reputation for arts and crafts, as well as elegant Art Deco architecture and surrounding countryside perfect for bushwalking.
It’s a comparison that appears to flatter Bendigo, but seen through the eyes of the well-travelled Kostova, it does make sense. Like Bendigo, it was first the architectural interest of Asheville that attracted artists, tree-changers and festival organisers: Kostova points out that it was the city’s good fortune to be too poor to knock down the Art Deco buildings in the city’s centre, so they sat unused and “undeveloped”.
Bendigo has a parallel story of fortuitous neglect, although it was a very near thing, as recently as the 1990s, when the ridiculously majestic Masonic Lodge on View Street was slated to make way for a petrol station or warehouse or some now unlikely scheme. The determination of a small community group saved it, and it is now the much-admired Capital Theatre
Asheville attracts tourists who browse the artists’ studios in converted warehouses, as well as the independent bookshops for which the city is famous. Food and wine festivals, which are such a seemingly good fit for cultural destinations, blossomed and excellent regional restaurants set up alongside providores developing the “paddock to plate” concept now so popular here as well.
And, as we are seeing in Australia, craft beer festivals were established, stretching the definition of cultural tourism to take in what is now called alcohol tourism.
“I wish we’d known this a decade ago,” Kostova said, as she began her description of what has happened to Asheville in the wake of their cultural tourism success.
The centre of Asheville – with its interesting buildings, its artistic community, atmosphere of lively creativity, good eating places, little shops and cafes – is now, says Kostova, avoided by the locals across the summer months.
Breweries, capitalising on the influx of “craft beer” tourists, have bought into downtown, developing accommodation and hotel outlets. For the Chamber of Commerce, this is seen as success. Visitors bring business and business brings money.
What’s being lost, however, are the very things which attracted people (and business) to the city in the first place. And beyond that, there are questions about what it means to support “alcohol tourism” – and indeed, whether a council can justifiably support it.
Beer festivals in Australia are not quite as ubiquitous as writers festivals – but getting there. And it’s likely that, with cultural tourism now seen by many local and regional councils as a good thing, the simple idea of a festival combining “craft” beer with a bit of music and a party atmosphere will be increasingly attractive.
In Bendigo, the writers festival is still, after six years and much enthusiastic praise, considered with suspicion by some of the old guard. Beer festivals, of which there are several, are unquestionably acceptable, even by those who don’t drink beer. Bit of fun. The brewers are passionate. Not too many of the participants get very drunk and fight each other. What’s not to like?
Elizabeth Kostova’s glowing praise of Bendigo and the festival is extraordinary and encouraging. Her warning about allowing cultural tourism to be swamped by alcohol tourism may not in fact be relevant to this city: it’s not that the council, business and tourism are more alert to the dangers than Asheville was a decade ago, but for reasons more to do with who owns much of the central city real estate. Different, but related, is the battle going on in Macedon Shire around plans to develop Hanging Rock as a tourist site for music events.
The surge in writers festivals has increased tourism interest in such events, coinciding with the gradual development of cultural tourism strategies.
Kostova says Asheville does not yet have a writers festival, but its bookshops are renowned, and its music and food festivals strong, despite the beer tourism. Equally important is the trekking and ecology tourism, which, as Bendigo Writers Festival has discovered, is a good fit for the kinds of people who are keen participants of writing-inspired events.
But it’s a more complex message to promote, requiring really clever strategies so that, in the very crowded advertising space and up against aggressive marketing vying for people’s attention, it can succinctly and effectively tell people what they’ll get out of a visit to a festival or a region.
Come and drink beer, no matter how many adjectives are used to fortify the “experience”, is a simple but not very sophisticated message for a tourist authority – let alone a local or state government – to promote. And if, as Kostova warns, there is a deep downside for the community within which the beer festival is staged, then short-term financial boosts will not add up to sustainable economic gains.
Rosemary Sorensen was director of this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival