Railroad column

"Cultural tourism is about education."

Hal K. Rothman

Professor of Environmental History

As one of the country's leading authorities on cultural tourism, it seemed rather incongruous that Hal Rothman, the keynote speaker at this year's V&T Railroad History Symposium, should reside and teach in Las Vegas, a city replete with innovative forms of entertainment but void of what is traditionally regarded as "culture."

According to Merriam/Webster, culture is "the act of developing and training" or "the refinement of intellectual and artistic taste." Based on the aforementioned definition, it would appear that much of our state is bereft of the very thing that could help distinguish us as a region while at the same time preserving the integrity of our historic assets.

According to Mr. Rothman, as our nation's resource-based economy gradually disappears, experience will become the currency of the future. Soon, a person's worth will be measured by the breadth and diversity of his or her experiences. Industry's desire to capitalize on this emerging trend has created some notable changes in behavior and perception. Symptomatic of this shift in attitude is the fact that water is being diverted for recreation rather than for the growth of crops. Trees have, in the eyes of many, become more valuable as scenery than as lumber. As we redefine our future as a state where tourism is a chief component, the challenge will be to satisfy two diametrically different segments of our society - what Mr. Rothman describes as the pre-MTV and the post-MTV generations.

It is Mr. Rothman's prediction that the retirees of tomorrow are going to immerse themselves in cultural and heritage tourism. Unlike the younger, "post-literate" segment of our society to whom visual stimulation and vicarious thrills have become a substitute for personal experience, America's maturing population will crave the authenticity inherent in the type of tourism that emphasizes education and enlightenment. True cultural/heritage tourism attempts to establish a link between the tourist and the human community. It does not focus on self gratification but rather allows the tourist to participate as part of the cultural matrix.

Cultural tourism, however, is not without its risks. Since it is seen as a way for people to distinguish themselves from others, it may be viewed as a form of elitism. Furthermore, as it increases in popularity, it may become progressively more commercialized and ultimately dislodged from its educational roots.

Although the industrial economy typical of the railroad era has come to an end, railroads themselves still afford people an opportunity to interact within a closely woven social fabric. According to Mr. Rothman, traveling in the spatial confinement of railroad cars during the early part of this century forced people to be civil. Good manners were of utmost importance and the penalty for noncompliance was ostracism.

As we, in northern Nevada, contemplate the reconstruction of the V&T Railroad, it is important that we school ourselves against sacrificing authenticity at the alter of commercialization. The challenge will be to find a healthy compromise between profitability and the ultimate objective of educating and enlightening our visitors.


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