Focusing on high financial value still keeps the tourism industry's focus on a quantitative metric. | Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

March 27, 2023

Preparing for a recent speaking engagement, I browsed the notes put together by a panel moderator. It’s common to receive a tentative outline and relevant questions to help guide the conversations, even if they end up being fairly organic in the moment.

Yet, reading over these notes, one of the questions posed by the moderator stood out to me: What can we do better to attract the “high values” traveler committed to sustainable tourism and respecting local communities and cultures?

I mulled over the question. 

We talk a lot about the high-value traveler — the person who, presumably, has the potential to spend a lot of money while visiting a destination. A search on the term “high-value travelers” notes they are likely to spend more, stay longer, and disperse beyond hotspots. Additionally, they’re motivated by nature, wildlife, aquatic, food, and hands-on experiences.

So, there you go: The high-value traveler as defined by the tourism industry.

Yet, these definitions still tend to feel a bit boxed in to me. “Value” isn’t restricted to finances, so perhaps a high-value traveler could offer a social, cultural, or educational benefit to a community as well. 

This leads me back to the question I found tucked between one on greenwashed narratives and another on strategies for approaching complex sustainability issues. 

Was the addition of the “s” on the word “value” a slip of the finger on the keyboard, or was it intentional? Because, if it was intentional, this brings up a point we’ve not examined in tourism. And that point is: Are we still attracting the wrong travelers for the wrong reasons?

Certainly, the financial benefits of tourism cannot be understated. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism was expected to contribute US$8.6 trillion to the global economy in 2022. That’s only 6.4% less than pre-pandemic levels. And, given the explosion of travel in just the first quarter of 2023 (despite global challenges like the climate crisis and increased costs of living), this number seems likely to blow any 2019 figures out of the water.

So, yes, the financial benefits of tourism matter. A lot.

It is, in fact, one of the tools gatekeepers are using to keep these massive traveler numbers in check. With more destinations implementing or increasing visitation fees, and price increases on everything from airline tickets to restaurant meals, one could argue that leisure travel is becoming more elitist by the day

In other words, the tourism industry is taking action so that only “high-value” (i.e. financially flush) travelers have the means to go on holiday. More money, fewer people. The scales are tipping in the right direction, yes?

I’m not so sure. Even if the high-value traveler stays longer and spends more, isn’t that moving the needle from one quantitative measurement to another? Isn’t it about time that we start considering more qualitative KPIs and become more accepting of localization and nuance when it comes to defining “success?”

With this in mind, are high-value travelers the only people we want to be able to enjoy leisure travel? Or, as this session moderator noted, would we be better off attracting “high-values” travelers committed to sustainable tourism and respecting local communities and cultures?

“Values” are defined as principles or standards of behavior. Valuing something means believing it is worthy, important, and deserving. 

Through this lens, I would argue that high-values travelers venture forth with a deep sense of curiosity, interest, and respect. They might not be able to afford the priciest hotel in the area or book the multi-day tour, but they are valuable because they ask questions, seek out meaningful experiences, and travel with an open mind. Perhaps these travelers would be more inclined to thoughtfully share their experiences with others as well. 

In this highly interconnected world in which we live — a world that is desperately in need of innovation, creativity, regeneration, diverse voices, and deep systemic changes — perhaps we should be more open to attracting high-values travelers.

In other words, a high-value traveler (the persona the industry has been seeking to attract) and the high-values traveler (the persona with high standards of behavior who believes a place and its people are worthy and important) may not actually be the same thing. Further, the latter may actually be more valuable than the former. 

Of course, this is not to say these two travelers are never mutually exclusive, but there could be marked differences in the way they approach, visit, and share their experiences.

This calls into question whether, in our departure from the dollar-driven traveler, we’ve gone far enough to define and attract the “right” travelers. Would this additional shift in perspective — from high value to high values — get the tourism industry even closer to the radical reinvention that is long overdue?


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