Pick up any airline magazine tucked into the seat back on your next flight, and you are likely to see at least one article that promises an itinerary that will take you off the beaten path. For as long as the tourist trade has existed, promoters have suggested paths that visitors should take through cities. As historian Catherine Cocks wrote in Doing the Town (Berkeley, 2001), they highlighted the brightest stars within the constellation of places in the city, but the result was that the “dark” spaces in between surely saw little of the benefits tourism might bring. Tourists hopped aboard a streetcar or hired a seeing-the-city car to whisk them from one bright spot to another. Thus their experience became as standardized as the pictures on the postcards they sent home.

Yet on the flip side, tourists were never content to stick completely to the tourist itinerary. Some ventured beyond the stock attractions of downtown in search of the true essence of the city. In the age of social media, such experiences are arguably worth more alongside material goods (like gifts and souvenirs) than ever, which heightens travelers’ desire have an original story to tell. As important as iconic destinations are, the travel industry would like to seed new attractions, just as the Santa Fe Railway introduced Detours in the American Southwest in the 1920s to channel railroad passengers’ desire to leave the tracks into a moneymaking opportunity. Rather than thinning out the crowd, newly minted “attractions” ideally would increase visitation and spread the benefits to peripheral neighborhoods.

On March 22, we noted a high-profile marketing effort in San Antonio, Texas, that aims to lure tourists away from the River Walk to impress them with innovative and artistic people and activities that promise to add depth to the city’s national image. More recently, The Atlantic Cities reported that Destination DC, the tourism marketing organization in Washington, is working hard to pull National Cherry Blossom Festival visitors away from the bubble of government buildings, museums, and national monuments centered on or near The Mall. As the article observes, Washington, like San Antonio, hopes to create buzz locally and nationally about the next big thing. These efforts suggest that city promoters increasingly embrace the power of place not only to attract still more tourists but also to sell some of them on relocating to the city – and, as the article rightly notes, to sell the city to its own citizens. Still, the lengths to which cities must go to push more than a minority of tourists beyond a handful of cherry-picked, must-see attractions is a powerful reminder of the enduring place of iconic destinations and the image promoters have built around them.

Cherry Blossom Festival - Washington, DC

Cherry trees in bloom, Washington, D.C. Photo by sdixclifford on Flickr