Philadelphia has historically been known as “a city of firsts”—the first library, hospital, and post office in the United States were all founded there. So perhaps it is fitting that it has become the first World Heritage City (WHC) in the United States, a designation that some say will be a boon for local tourism.
But is membership in a club of 269 other historic cities significant enough to, say, drive hotel development or increase demand for commercial space? Local civic boosters say “yes”—and that they have research to prove it.
The designation is the result of three years of work by the Global Philadelphia Association, a nonprofit organization composed of government officials, business leaders, university administrators, and other local stakeholders seeking to raise the city’s international profile. The group lobbied the Organization of World Heritage Cities, a Quebec-based nonprofit entity that organizes cities with United Nations World Heritage Sites, like Independence Hall, for the recognition Philadelphia received last November.
“One of the driving forces behind this was to radically increase Philadelphia’s global profile,” says John F. Smith III, chair of Global Philadelphia, a member-governed Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation whose purpose is partially to enhance the region’s global profile. “And it has already been a pretty big deal. There have already been over 400 news stories about the designation.”
The local hospitality industry also is optimistic about the potential impact.
“We think the designation is going to be pretty important in the context of a number of other things that have enabled Philadelphia to rise onto the world stage. It’s another piece of that, like the World Meeting of Families,” says George Stafford, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, referring to the recent and highly publicized visit by Pope Francis. “I think the designation will generate more international visitation. We don’t know how much, but we think it will be significant.”
Smith says that Philadelphia’s bid cost at least “several hundreds of thousands of dollars” and countless man-hours. To show that the organization’s labors would be worthwhile, Global Philadelphia hired a local research firm to quantify the tangible benefits of a designation.
The five-page study concluded that, if marketed properly, the WHC designation would create from $150 million to $300 million in new economic activity annually, increasing international tourism by 10 to 15 percent and domestic tourism by 1 or 2 percent.
If these gains were realized, that would translate into upwards of 1 million new annual visitors. Philadelphia has seen organic growth in tourism of a similar size over the past few years, which led to the construction of nearly a dozen new downtown hotels and contributed to a local retail boom.
But Brent Lane, a University of North Carolina professor who has written several research papers on the impacts of World Heritage designations, says the “bump” these designations provide is often smaller than boosters like to claim. The actual effects are also hard to separate from other factors that affect international tourism, like currency exchange rates.
Lane says this is especially true for cities in developed countries that are already associated with history—like Philadelphia.
“It can be a significant brand addition if you’re in a relatively anonymous site,” he says. “But generally, people are not going to alter their global travel plans because of the designation. It’s not going to sway people to visit Philadelphia instead of Disney World or Times Square.”
Lane says that the key to astounding projections, like the Econsult study, is the caveat about “proper marketing.”
“Often, the work that goes into applying for this status is part of a larger, coordinated tourism and marketing effort by civic actors,” he says. “The impact all boils down to how you market the brand.”
According to Smith, that is exactly what’s occurring in the wake of the designation, under the guidance of his group and Philadelphia’s two main tourism organizations.
“The marketing campaign is gearing up now,” he says. “We’re working with . . . a communications and engagement firm and have already started the branding effort. And a fair amount of work has gone into creating a more-thorough marketing campaign that will take place over the next several years.”