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Conference deals with how to preserve America's cultural sites

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The Liberty Bell (NPS)

Americans drawn to historic areas where they can connect with the nation's past, their family's roots or just take in the sights are fueling tourism that's in the spotlight during a national gathering of preservation experts this week in Indianapolis.

The National Preservation Conference is being held at Indianapolis' historic Union Station and other sites. Wide-ranging seminars include sessions toasting some of the success stories historic preservation can foster by helping spark revitalization in neighborhoods and city centers.

Cultural heritage tourism — travelers drawn to areas steeped in history and unique local flavor — is big business in the U.S. Nearly 130 million Americans make such pilgrimages each year, contributing about $171 billion to local economies, according to a report this year from Mandala Research LLC.

That study also found that eight in 10 leisure travelers visit cultural or heritage sites and spend more than other travelers, said Amy Webb, field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Denver field office.

"If you're going to travel, you want to see something you can't see at home. So they go someplace where there are unique buildings that have stories to tell of that place," she said.

Such travelers typically visit an area's shops, parks and restaurants to sample the local scene, giving them what Webb calls a "multidimensional experience that's not just about going to a museum."

The economic benefits of cultural heritage tourism is another argument local preservationists should make when they fight to save old buildings or other sites in danger of being razed, said Webb, who is among about 2,000 preservation experts attending the five-day conference, which ends Saturday.

Cultural heritage tourism has paid off for decades in Savannah, Ga., which boasts the nation's largest National Historic Landmark District and 14 other historic districts. The city near the Atlantic Coast has more than 20 city squares laden with museums, antebellum mansions, monuments and Revolutionary and Civil War sites.

Daniel Carey, president and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, said more than 12 million tourists visit the Savannah area each year, adding more than $2 billion to its economy.

Carey said Savannah, founded in 1733, has three centuries of history to offer visitors, including about 1,500 historic homes.

"It's an authentic, historic, architecturally interesting and pedestrian friendly place. They can go really at their own leisure and soak in the history and the culture," he said.

Philadelphia, one of the nation's most historic cities, has been working to capitalize on cultural and historical tourism by attracting visitors to neighborhoods beyond the traditional tourist stops of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

The city's tourism bureau recently put the spotlight on nine neighborhoods that boast their own historic attractions as well as restaurants, bars, galleries and other development, said Patrick Hauck, director of neighborhood preservation for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

"What's great about cultural tourism in cities like Philadelphia is that it's not just about what happened in the past, it's also about what's happening now. Those two really work together," he said.