Contact Us
prayer flag

Heritage Interpretation

What is it, and who needs it?

Heritage interpretation is the presentation of the cultural and natural legacy of a particular place so as to make it accessible and enjoyable to visitors. It is the packaging of a tourist destination. It includes the preparation of a wide range of products, from trail signage to brochures, coffee-table books, CD-ROMS, visitor centers, and museums. It is an important part of the professional work of every ecotourism planner.

What? You're not an ecotourism planner
and have no desire to be one? Click here.

The agenda

Summiters' parent organization, Bridges-PRTD, has been working with the people of Rolwaling since 1999 to develop plans for expanded tourism in this valley. In keeping with the cultural traditions, two themes have been selected as the basis for both promotion and also development:
Academic Credit

Need credit for this program? Summiters itself cannot give credit, but Bridges-PRTD has been successful at helping participants formulate independent study and internship proposals which have been deemed credit-worthy by the students' home universities; many have even gotten grants.

  • Rolwaling, The Sacred Valley The Sherpas believe that Rolwaling was plowed out of the mountains by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) as a sanctuary for dharma during times of crisis. In part because of this belief, but also due to the isolation of this valley, the communities have observed traditions more strongly than elsewhere. The people would now like to strengthen their religion, in part to serve as ballast in the face of increased outside pressures. Specifically, the new head lama at Beding wants to build a monastic school that will train lamas for service throughout Nepal. More...

  • Rolwaling, Cradle of Heroes Per capita, this tiny community has produced more Everest summiters than any other place on Earth. But these are not just climbers, out to "knock the bastard off" (as Hillary put it): they are workers, making money to support their families, and they are guides, commited to serving their clients, at whatever risk. For decades they have performed ungodly acts of heroism. It is time to celebrate these heroes. They deserve it. Their families and their people need it.

Tourism as Pilgrimage

Both of these themes cast the tourist in the role of pilgrim. This orientation is appropriate for several reasons. First, Rolwaling is actually an important pilgrimage site. For Hindus as well as Buddhists, Gauri Shankar (Tseringma) is one of the holiest mountains in the world. The glacial lake Oma'i Tsho is also a major pilgrimage destination for Sherpas. And there are a half dozen or more other sacred spots up and down the valley. Especially as efforts are made to bring in more Chinese and Indian tourists, religious pilgrims represent a large potential market.

Secondly, pilgrimage is a useful metaphor for ecotourism: pilgrims travel in order to witness and to learn. Literal belief in some supernatural tradition is not so important as the conviction that there are places and peoples so extaordinary that we are inspired by visiting them: historical monuments and natural landmarks may equally well be considered pilgrimage sites. Respect for the culture of the host is fundamental; so, by extension, is respect for the natural environment.

Third, pilgrimage implies a relationship between guest and host that goes beyond commerce. Admission fees may be more palatable in they are solicited by way of contribution to the maintenance of the site and the route. Many travelers will become "patrons" of the locale, making donations, sponsoring local families, and even returning repeatedly.

In a real sense, the personal enrichment of the traveler represents an enhanced economic opportunity for the host. For Rolwaling, which cannot possibly compete with the topographic starpower of neighboring Khumbu, there is a significant marketing advantage in promoting Rolwaling with this distinctive spin.


Aside from the first element of instruction, in which bring everyone up to speed on the cultural and natural context of our work, the heritage interpretation instruction is "collaborative," rather than top-down. We assume that everyone will be motivated to participate intensively in this project. There will be no grading unless requested.

Before we get down to the real work, which will take place in base camp and campfire workshops, Summiters participants will be given orientation material on a wide range of pertinent topics, including tectonic theory, Himalayan geology and meteorology, history of Nepal, Buddhism, Sherpa history and culture, flora and fauna of Rolwaling, and current developments in Rolwaling and Khumbu. Before departure, we will distribute succinct summaries, along with suggested readings. In Kathmandu and on the trail, we will have a series of 75-minute lectures and question-answer periods.

The second element of our syllabus is writing. We will distribute samples of fiction, memoires, brochures, Web site text, and other genres. In a series of workshops we will consider what defines these genres and what are the parameters regarding stylistic choice within each genre; and we will develop strategies for the evaluation of such writing. Throughout our mountaineering training exercises, we will have small group "extemporary writing exercises." For example, suppose you had to write a paragraph detailing the route from Simigaon to Beding for a guidebook such as Lonely Planet: what would you say? Suppose you were writing about the same route for a coffee-table book: what would you say?

The third element of the Summiters syllabus is development planning. In a continuing series of discussions, we will discuss how best to promote Rolwaling as a "sacred valley" and as a "cradle of heroes." Here's the drill: Taking into account what you see around you, and - more important - what you don't, decide what information (textual and graphic) should be included in trail signs, guidebook write-ups, brochures, coffee-table book, CD-ROM, and visitors center. The key is selectivity, but the guiding principals for selection need to be examined. The heritage interpreter faces a variety of overlapping and competing pressures:

  • the traveler's expectations
  • the traveler's need to know
  • the host's need to channel traffic
  • the host's self-image
  • cultural and natural conservation
  • economics (the costs and benefits of publication, promotion, and infrastructure such as signage and visitor center)
It is our job, as ecotourism professionals, to arrive at an effective mediation of these priorities.

Okay, let's say (for the sake of argument) that you really aren't so sure you want to go into tourism on a professional basis: why would you need it? Well, maybe you don't. But here are three reasons you might:

  • You yourself are a visitor. Wherever you go, whatever you do, your experience will be enhanced by understanding the cultural and natural legacies around you. The first step in heritage intepretation is to understand and experience fully; it happens that this is also your goal as an ecotourism consumer.

  • Every vacation must come to an end. What will you have then? Heritage interpretation gives you a "product." But rather than snapshots and haphazard notes in a journal, you have an article, a CD-ROM, a promotional concept, or at least a selection of informed observations and memories.

  • You get to give something back. By participating in this program, you will contribute to an urgently needed process of heritage interpretation and ecotourism promotion. You will help shape a trajectory that will optimize the impact of tourism development in this very poor and very remarkable valley.
So, if you were thinking of just taking a climbing course, or looking for a program that might boost your confidence and give you some leadership skills, here is a chance to get a little more for your time and your money. A lot more.

The Just-Do-It Option

While this program is designed for ecotourism professionals and for students preparing for a career in ecotourism, those who have no such interest, but are looking for mountaineering instruction alone, may elect the "just-do-it" option. They will be exempt from all heritage interpretation options, but will be expected to serve as a "test market" -- real ecotourists whose perceptions and experience will be considered by the heritage interpreters.

219 W. Spencer St. #3
Ithaca, NY 14850
Tel: (609) 256-0102 Fax: (708) 575-6620 Email: etters@bridges-prtd.com