Evaluating world heritage interpretation in online spaces and its potential to prime the development of eco-cultural tourism experiences (virtual and onsite)
: a case study on Pimachiowin Aki, Canada’s first mixed world heritage site

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


World Heritage Sites increasingly leverage social media platforms and immersive technologies to create meaningful and authentic encounters with the public. Thus, in today’s ever-evolving heritage tourism industry, where visitors accumulate online, just as much (if not more) than they do onsite, there is a pressing need to cast a critical light on an ever-increasing body of interpretive content that is emerging from online spaces. This thesis addresses gaps in knowledge and understanding concerning heritage interpretation in online spaces, eco-cultural tourism development, and Indigenous Mixed World Heritage, by venturing beyond the well-trodden path of examining heritage interpretation onsite, to examine the vastly unexplored territory of heritage interpretation in the online space.

Using Pimachiowin Aki, Canada’s first Mixed World Heritage Site (inscribed by UNESCO in 2018), as a case study, the potential of online spaces, as interpretive platforms for newly-inscribed Indigenous sites, is examined. The overall aim of this research was twofold: first, to gain a dynamic understanding of the motivations, practices and strategies used to design and deliver heritage interpretation in online spaces at an Indigenous Mixed World Heritage Site in Canada; and second, to investigate the ways in which online heritage interpretation can inform and support the potential future design and development of eco-cultural tourism experiences, (virtual and onsite).

Embracing a qualitative and interpretive methodology, the rich findings of this thesis are a result of extensive online research (Facebook, website, and virtual tourism analysis); stakeholder interviews; community insights; and official document analysis. The first phase of research identifies online spaces as dynamic interpretive stages on which newly-inscribed Indigenous sites can quickly create awareness, increase accessibility and foster meaningful public engagement with their site. The findings offer an original and significant contribution to knowledge and practice through the identification of six strategic opportunities that can be harnessed through the strategic practice of heritage interpretation in online spaces. The second phase of research reveals how strategic heritage interpretation in online and virtual spaces, in the form of virtual eco-cultural tourism experiences, has the potential to operate as a primer for the development of eco-cultural tourism onsite. These findings, which provide a new perspective on heritage interpretation and sustainable tourism, showcase the potential benefits of developing virtual tourism, and are of particular use to site management at Indigenous Mixed World Heritage Sites, especially those sites located in peripheral areas that have limited tourism infrastructure in place, and minimal funding to drive the development of tourism onsite.

UNESCO (2020d), recognising a need to balance physical and virtual experiences going forward, given the impact of COVID-19 on World Heritage interpretation, has called for the development of principles, guidelines and protocols to aid site management with their digital methodologies. Thus, this thesis makes a unique and timely contribution to academia and industry through its development of an overarching framework to support the practice of heritage interpretation in online spaces and the development of eco-cultural tourism experiences (online/onsite) at newly-inscribed Indigenous Mixed World Heritage Sites.
Date of AwardJun 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorStephen Boyd (Supervisor) & Peter Bolan (Supervisor)


  • Indigenous tourism
  • Remote tourism
  • Virtual tourism experiences
  • Social media
  • First nations
  • Digital storytelling
  • OUV
  • Covid-19

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