Riding down Highway 30 east of Lancaster City I was struck as I usually am by the preponderance of Amish tourist destinations. Amish tourism has a long history dating back to the 1930s and 1940s in Lancaster County, with the Ohio and Indiana industries kicking into gear a couple of decades later. Today it would be hard to imagine these places without the plethora of PA Dutch restaurants and buggy ride purveyors.
I don’t have a lot of direct experience with what we think of as Amish tourist businesses. I did once visit Brad Igou’s Amish Experience Theater in Lancaster, along with a curious Amish friend, and enjoyed it (highlights included Brad’s Amish knowledge and stories, plus the very cool wind-and-ocean spray effects during the Amish passage to America).
I’ve been to English-run shops in Amish tourism centers like Berlin, Ohio, or Shipshewana, Indiana, and of course Amish-owned businesses, which are probably the most common thing the Amish themselves provide in the manner of a “Plain experience” for tourist visitors. Some Amish tourism destinations like Amish Experience Theater provide educational value, while others primarily deal in Amish products (and of course the related “Amish Country” products, which as we know are often not so Amish at all).
When it comes to authenticity, I think most people do want authentic experiences, or at the least something with elements of genuineness. But I think there are different degrees of that.
For some visitors, touring a formerly Amish-inhabited farm home with an English guide describing collected artifacts of Amish life is enough. Others need to visit a real working farm at milking time, a service provided by some tour companies.
In fact you could probably map Amish tourist businesses on a continuum of authenticity with activities like Amish-guided buggy rides and meals in Amish homes on the more “genuine” end and things like Amish musicals and the kitschier Amish paraphernalia towards the other end of the spectrum.
Wherever they do end up, places like Holmes County and Lancaster County see millions of visitors yearly, bringing huge economic benefits to local communities while simultaneously altering landscapes.
Along the way, Amish tourism has gotten a good bit of academic attention analyzing the causes and effects of the phenomenon. For more on the subject see David Luthy’s Amish tourism writings or Amish in the American Imagination by David Weaver-Zercher. There is also the soon-to-be-released Selling the Amish by Susan L. Trollinger detailing Amish tourism in Holmes County, Ohio.
Have you experienced an Amish tourism destination? What was it like? Which are the better Amish tourism experiences and venues?