A cruise ship passes in the Giudecca Canal in Venice. Image: REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri
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Are we unwillingly killing the geese that lay the golden eggs? The communities that tourists want to visit are increasingly under pressure from tourism. Essentially, no one person is liable. Human beings want to travel; who can blame them? Hoteliers are happy to provide beds, that’s their business. Food and beverage providers and museums welcome the additional spending to supplement the revenue they earn from locals. Policymakers are happy with the jobs created and hence accept visitors using public services and spaces.
All good, as long as the locals don’t complain, the jobs provide careers with perspective, service providers make healthy profits, and the local ecology is not vandalized. Unfortunately, today, none of this is true.
Why is the tourism system broken? Well, younger generations probably have a hard time imagining this, but the tourism system was built in a way that was completely opaque; a time without the internet. How would a traveler compare and book flights, accommodation or any other part of an itinerary? The answer is, of course, they wouldn’t. A tour operator and/or travel agent would do it for them.
So, as travelers were in the dark, we created global brands for them to put their faith in. Global-travel trade brands, hospitality brands, airline brands. All of that made complete sense as ways to build reliability, trustworthiness and consistency in an opaque market. Even attractions have become global brands (Disney, Madame Tussauds, Guggenheim, The Dungeons). All global brands dominating destination brands.
In addition, in order to protect consumers in such an opaque system, many governments created legislation that would establish legal liability for tour operators and travel agents if their clients were able to prove that they were provided with misleading information. As a result, the travel trade created a system of standardized information; a fact-based system like the usual star-classification system that described the offering in objectified terms: a hotel x meters from the beach, with rooms of y square meters in a destination with z hours of sunshine in a year on average. So, in such a system with packaged products, consumers would start to compare offerings only on packaging (brand) and price. Hey presto, the commodification of travel in which the destination has become virtually irrelevant.
We created a system in which destinations have become disposable gadgets – public commodities. The travel trade was forced to do that; we can’t really hold them accountable. Airlines don’t really care and they shouldn’t; they are in the business of moving people around. Today’s online booking engines don’t care; they are just brokers. And in the meantime, travelers compare offerings largely on price, continuing the downward spiral of profits, wages and uncompensated social and ecological impacts. The outdated complex system of commodification we created makes it hard to charge price premiums, even for destinations that face dramatic overtourism.
So which parts of the system should care? The hospitality industry should. With the online review systems, as the successes of Airbnb and boutique hotels have shown, the relevance of standardization of global hospitality brands has diminished. They are now being judged – partly – on the basis of how they integrate their services into the local experience of place. Also, the travel trade should care. If they don’t start to specialize and sell truly enhanced experiences, that one can’t buy everywhere else, they will lose their relevance altogether. Today, we need customized authenticity in sustainable destinations, not homogeneity. In other words: everyone should care.
Still, unfortunately, today, travel continues to be seen as a standardized, supply-driven commodity. Mass advertising shows that many destinations really don’t have a clue about who their potential guests are and what experiences they are looking for, or have never really gone through the trouble of finding out. Destination brands (or rather, their logos and slogans) continue to be used just to sell more airline seats and hotel beds, not to actually build community reputation.
However, with the discussions about overtourism, there seems to be a shift in perspective. Many communities are starting to object to tour operator-driven, large-group mass tourism, cruise liners administering shocks to the system as they disembark their ships, or governments providing state funding to low-cost airlines by cross-subsidizing airports, overstimulating demand. At the same time, communities don’t seem to be antagonistic towards tourism per se, but they are probably just looking for partnership; a reputation alliance in which all actors are not just concerned about short-term profits, but just as much about long-term reputational stability.
There was a time when all businesses were concerned about their reputation in the local community in which they operated, because their business depended on trust in local markets. We’ve forgotten about this as globalization created universal players. Yet, for tourism businesses it should remain a concern as their long-term success depends tremendously on local communities. Without attractive sustainable destinations, no tourism!
What we need to focus on is the creation of imaginative communities: groups of people and businesses that share a sense of identity, history and belonging. Imaginative communities have a clear understanding of what it is that brings the community together; what the sense of comradeship and purpose is. Imaginative communities reinforce and strengthen this identity while featuring it in original, creative, innovative, captivating and inspiring initiatives that show the world what the community is about in order to build a distinctive, relevant, authentic, consistent and memorable reputation.
Imaginative communities stand out and hence become irresistible destinations for some, yet unattractive to others. Based on that, destinations can define appropriate tourism product-market combinations; targeted travel experiences. They can select the appropriate components in the tourism system that deliver on these experiences in the best way possible. This facilitates community-alliances in which the destination takes back control of the tourism system as opposed to being a victim of it. Destinations can then move away from mass media advertising – being everything for everyone – to target content marketing through their community-alliances in the tourism system.
In the long run, such a system would benefit all, with more rewarding experiences for tourists; a more sustainable impact of tourism on the community; healthier margins for tourism service providers (because enhanced experience customization warrants a price premium) and hence better and more rewarding jobs for people working in the tourism system.
Destinations are communities that should be at the center of the tourism system, not just a name on a map.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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