Though not tourists, Sorna Khakzad and Mike Thomin are extremely interested in tourism, more specifically heritage and cultural tourism.



Mid-month two researchers paid a visit to the local area and took in the sights of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola.

Though not tourists, Sorna Khakzad and Mike Thomin are extremely interested in tourism, more specifically heritage and cultural tourism.

Khakzad and Thomin are researchers from the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), a statewide program that is administered by the University of West Florida.

Through eight regional offices, FPAN’s mission is to, “To promote and facilitate the stewardship, public appreciation, and value of Florida's archaeological heritage through regional centers, partnerships, and community engagement.”

For the past year, the researchers have been criss-crossing the Florida Panhandle studying historical and cultural tourism sites to better understand heritage tourism as it stands in the region and its possibility in the future.

Khakzad, who last year earned a second doctoral degree in Coastal Resources Management from East Carolina University, was hired as a post-doctoral research associate by FPAN to specifically study heritage tourism.

When she arrived at FPAN and began looking into heritage tourism research, Khakzad quickly found that besides financial impact little was known.

“When I started, it was a topic that was new for everybody,” Khakzad said. “We had to come up with a plan to do it.”

The plan that Khakzad came up with was a three-part survey, a survey that Khakzad and Thomin would complete after a site visit, one that they would give to a site manager to complete, and another general survey the public could fill out.

After a method was decided, Khakzad and her team had to decide which sites to visit.

So for the past year, Khakzad and Thomin have made their way through nearly 60 sites in Northwest Florida, all of which met certain criteria.

All of the sites had to follow criteria set down by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and had to have some sort of visitor or interpretation center.

On their site surveys, Khakzad and Thomin collected data about each site, from parking spaces to the historic information provided.

As their regional study drew to a close, the pair made their last stop in Port St. Joe and Apalachicola.

In Gulf County, Khakzad and Thomin visited the Cape San Blas Lighthouse and Keepers’ Quarters and Constitution Convention Museum State Park before moving onto multiple sites in Franklin County.

Now with a large pool of survey data, Khakzad will compile the results of the study during the next year in order to generate general guidelines for the region and specific guidelines for individual sites if necessary.

“We can learn from this (study) and then we can expand it to the whole state,” Khakzad said. “Our ideal goal is that we come up with national guidelines.”

The pair has studied sites ranging in size and impact, from local, to state and even some federal institutions and hopes that the study can help smaller sites benefit from information gathered about larger heritage sites.

“For us, it is a kind of learning process,” Khakzad. “We have learned a lot and the whole process is just learning from these projects to see how we can make it better.”

While Thomin has called the Panhandle home for years, Khakzad is new to the region and has had to learn about the unique history of the Panhandle from scratch.

While some may see that as a disadvantage, Khakzad believes that the freshness to the region has helped her remain unbiased towards the sites.

For Thomin, the study has just reinforced what he already believed about the history and the people of Northwest Florida.

“For me, it really reinforced that we do have a really important story and history to tell,” Thomin said. “It is out there and it is everywhere. In some places, it is interpreted very openly and it is visible, in other places where it is not there there is a lot of potential for it.”

While Khakzad admitted that economic gain may be the driving force behind most heritage tourism, she said that it isn’t the end all.

“A successful heritage tourism is just not about the immediate economic benefit,” Khakzad said. “It means a community that is benefiting from tourists and it means that a community can keep its sense of identity.”

While the team has found that tourist destination areas such as Destin and Panama City can rely on tourist’s dollars to support their heritage tourism, Khakzad and Thomin have found that inland and rural sites rely much more heavily on the local community.

Many of the sites that the pair have visited are manned entirely or almost entirely by volunteers and supported mainly by the local community.

While that may sound like a disadvantage, Khakzad and Thomin have found a great deal of success at many of the smaller sites, a success based on community impact.

“We see a lot of examples of where you had that really grassroots passion,” said Thomin. “Then they collaborated with the local, county or state government and they’re able to save these site and make something incredible out of it.”

One of the sites that Thomin highlighted for its community effort was the Cape San Blas Lighthouse.

“It is incredible where that building was in 1999 and through all that local effort where it is today,” Thomin said. “That’s phenomenal, something that I think this community should be very proud of.”

Khakzad sees that local effort as central to making heritage tourism successful.

“I think that it makes the connection between the history and the community more alive,” Khakzad said.

While the pair noted the tremendous amount of work they have seen throughout the Panhandle they are still worried about certain aspects of heritage tourism in the region.

An aging volunteer base, especially at smaller sites, opens up the question of who will man these sites in the future.

Both researchers urged members of the local community to get involved or simply use the sites for what they are intended for.

Thomin said that simply visiting sites and the programs that they put on will add an onus to keep those sites going.

“They’ll do a lot more programs if people show up,” Thomin said. “A lot of times I feel that we just take for granted that it (sites) are there.”

Thomin added that when governments of all levels see a buy-in from the community, they are much more likely to support heritage sites.

With the data collected, both Khakzad and Thomin hope that the study will lead to a greater buy in from organizations and the government, and led to a greater amount of collaboration between sites.

“Hopefully the research makes it into the hands of higher authorities and they see the value in heritage tourism,” Khakzad said. “And they see investing in sites can bring more benefit to Florida, the communities and everybody.”

While the researchers held out their verdict on sites in Port St. Joe and Apalachicola until they can look through all of their data, they were impressed by the little bit of time they spent at the sites and believe that the local area can be a heritage tourism destination.

“It has been great to meet a lot of these people,” Thomin said. “It’s in good hands I think and people are really dedicated in this field and in this region. For me, it has made it all worthwhile just that alone.”