In 2003, in a small fishing village in the northeast of Brazil, Rodrigo, a local fisherman, had recently given up his career to turn his modest house into a hostel for backpackers. He explained to me over caipirinhas that the sudden influx of foreign tourists pushed him to sell his boat in order to afford the cost of expanding his house. Kitesurfers and windsurfers had recently discovered the town’s perfect sun and wind conditions, and many of Rodrigo’s neighbors were excited at the coming influx of dollars and euros into this small fishing village.
As tourism slowly engulfs most corners of the globe, many communities who previously viewed it as a boon soon come to rely on it to survive. Rodrigo’s humble hostel thrived in the new international beach town, attracting both foreigners as well as visiting Brazilians. When I met him though, he was despondent. An extremely popular travel guidebook had covered the town’s hostels, and advised against staying at Rodrigo’s, because the staff at the new French-owned one across the street spoke better English.
Rodrigo’s family gave up its fishing income to play this global tourism game, but ended up suffering at the hands of a book written by people who had never even stayed at his hostel. A few trusted print sources had singlehandedly made the decisions for travelers, and this had a tremendous impact on how we spent our money while abroad.
Technology hasn’t completely helped the situation, frequently bringing the most benefit to the large multinational corporations who have access to infrastructure and marketing expertise. However, while the internet certainly opens the floodgates to information and recommendations, it also enables business models that allow travelers far greater control over where their time and money are spent.
As opposed to even 10 years ago when the tourism industry was totally offline, we now have immediate access to new experiential models of travel, endless crowd-sourced information, and also increased transparency on how our money is spent. Voluntourism, an industry that now reaches 1.6 million volunteers yearly, allows travelers to dedicate their time directly to a community, its growth exploding in part by greater transparency and access to the internet. Airbnb and Couchsurfing have given travelers other options on where to spend their money, and have made traveling more economically viable to many people. AnyRoad and other companies enable professional microentrepreneur guides to run their businesses from their phones and compete with larger tour operators.
In some ways, traveling is very much a selfish act. In a 2014 Tripadvisor poll, 53,800 travelers said the top reasons they travel were “enhancing” perspectives on the world, seeking “liberation”, cultural immersion, and strengthening personal relationships. In other words, we travel largely to benefit ourselves. Certainly this selfishness is not solely a negative force, as cultural understanding has worked to build important international ties and break down prejudice; however, it’s often without recognition of the potential harmful effects on the communities we visit. It is our responsibility to be conscious of how our traveling impacts the people and environment we interact with, and to make proactive decisions to mitigate the damage.
Lonely Planet, the publisher of the ubiquitous travel guidebook often dubbed “the bible” by backpackers, was sold to a Kentucky cigarette billionaire by BBC Worldwide in 2013 for just a third of what it had paid just a few years before. Guidebooks with a single authoritative voice become irrelevant in a world with websites like TripAdvisor that aggregate thousands of reviews, and allow us more control over our economic decisions. The future is a crowdsourced one, and incredibly, this influence can even be felt even in places with low internet penetration.
Many of the trends in today’s tourism industry are built on enabling economy models, giving professionals the ability to compete for global tourism dollars, and travelers the information and tools necessary to access anything from their phones. Suddenly, technology is empowering us with tools and real-time reviews to make conscious decisions about how we spend our money, where we go, and how our footprints impact the world around us.
The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015 is available here.
Author: Jonathan Yaffe is founder and CEO of AnyRoad
Image: A tourist buys a fresh coconut on a beach in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz