The traditional tourism framework is fairly well known: Get wanderlust, book travel, travel to new destination, relax, enjoy, return home, resume “normal” life.
It all sounds well and good, but there are a few problems with this framework.
As those in the tourism industry continue to discuss what a “new” version of travel looks like, I’d like to suggest we not only need to “rethink” tourism but straight up bust the damaging myths the current tourism framework is built on.
Nothing new is ever built overnight, and the same is true with overhauling an entire industry. But clearly identifying what doesn’t work and why is the first step in creating something even better.
Myth #1: Tourism should be traveler-focused.
This makes sense. Travelers are the people booking transportation, accommodation, and tours. They are the ones paying for and participating in the experiences and activities. And so, naturally, the tourism ecosystem and the stories about travel reflect what travelers want to see and hear.
The consequence of this is that, instead of letting destinations flourish on their own, tourism often shapes people and places, forcing them to remold themselves into what is most desirable for travelers and the tourism industry. Over time, this has turned many destinations into places where tourism determines value versus places where tourism adds value.
Centering travelers in the tourism narrative also means the travel experience is centered around their needs and desires. This, in turn, means it’s often portrayed as carefree, relaxed, and simple. In this context, travelers are left in the dark about the challenges destinations and their residents face. This makes it far easier for travelers to exacerbate the problems tourism causes because they are not made aware of the burdens they place on destinations in a clear and transparent way.
Myth #2: Travel should be comfortable.
When we center travelers in the tourism narrative, we create a story that is comfortable. Travel is a way to escape life’s daily struggles. It’s a chance for people to relax, have new experiences, shake up their normal routines, and reward themselves. The stories we tell about travel are attractive, predictable, and make people feel good.
Yet, as noted in the point above, the tourism industry has been at the heart of many environmental and social challenges These include overcrowding, creation of carbon emissions, degradation of cultural and historical sites, gentrification due to an increase in short-term rentals, and exploitation of Indigenous people and commoditization of their cultures.
The world is a complicated place, and we need to be willing to tangle with that complexity. Life is messy, but that’s also what makes it interesting. Travel should be an invitation for travelers to grapple with and learn from the imperfect. Not doing so relegates destinations to two-dimensional backdrops to the detriment of local communities and relevant social and environmental issues.
Myth #3: The customer journey ends when a prospective traveler books a trip.
Tourism tends to follow the classic sales funnel model. We guide prospective buyers through the awareness, interest, and desire stages before ushering them through the checkout line for airline tickets, accommodation stays, tours, and other travel-focused activities.
There is a lot of focus on this customer journey, but minimal attention is paid to travelers’ experiences on the ground and especially once they’ve returned home.
From a sales and marketing perspective, this makes sense. Travel is a strange product though: While the transactional part of the journey is largely over once someone has turned from a prospective customer to a paying customer, the traveler journey is just beginning. Arguably, that’s when the real opportunity for thoughtful engagement emerges.
What would happen if booking was only the start of a relationship with travelers? What if we found solutions for keeping travelers thoughtfully engaged with what they learned and connected with on their travels long after they returned home? What if the traveler journey was prioritized over the customer journey?
Myth #4: International travelers must be prioritized.
According to the UNWTO, there were 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019. This are a lot of people driving an incredible amount of financial resources into the tourism sector worldwide, so it makes sense that the tourism industry focuses its attention on international travel.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that an industry so heavily focused on a wide web of international supply chains can easily crumble. But even before the pandemic hit, the tourism industry’s reliance on international tourism was tenuous at best. Locals were crowded and priced out by international visitors, unable to enjoy and afford their own neighborhoods.
Further, the accelerating growth of international travel was unsustainable for the environment. While we can never stuff the genie completely back in the bottle, the “pandemic pause” is a chance to reassess whether all the flying that comes with international travel is worth the environmental cost. Only 1% of people are responsible for half of global aviation carbon emissions. These frequent flyers flew about 35,000 miles each year — the equivalent of three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or some combination of the two.
Prioritizing domestic tourism means prioritizing local people and communities, sustainable development, and the environment. Domestic travelers are powerful word-of-mouth ambassadors who are likely to revisit and support local destinations over a longer period of time. As a destination’s (nearby) residents, they are also wonderful advocates, invested in long-term and sustainable growth and viability.
A tourism industry that prioritizes domestic tourism would look different than what we’re used to seeing. It means rethinking the context and perspective of what “travel” means. People would probably stay for shorter lengths of time (even a few hours, if we’re going to narrow in on hyper-domestic travel). It requires thinking about new ways to tell a destination’s story and inviting locals to explore their own backyards from a more nuanced and interesting perspective.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the industry shouldn’t put any effort into attracting international travelers. That is not only unrealistic but irresponsible. International tourism is vital for many destinations particularly (but not limited to) those that identify as low-income economies and island nations. Tourism is an important and essential vehicle for dispersing monetary funds throughout the world. However, the hyper-focused reliance on international inbound travel isn’t sustainable, nor does it prioritize locals as potential investors in the local tourism ecosystem.
Myth #5: Travel is for young, white, cis, able-bodied people.
It is no secret that the tourism industry is wretched at embracing diversity. From leadership across a wide range of tour operators to tourism boards, B2C media mastheads, and influencer campaigns, the tourism industry largely presents itself as welcoming to and only inclusive for those who are young, white, cis, and able-bodied.
The tourism industry is, in so many ways, the very opposite of diverse. This is a huge mistake: It dismisses a huge portion of the world’s citizens who can and want to travel — and who have incredible collective buying power. It doesn’t prioritize inclusive infrastructure or communication that benefits everyone in society. And, instead of building bridges and creating the conditions for meaningful connection, it slams the door on diversity.
Tourism marketers and media: You have a responsibility to diversify your campaigns and mastheads. Tour operators and destination: You have a responsibility to develop products and services that are welcoming for people from all walks of life. Tourism professionals across all sectors: True diversity and inclusivity comes from within, and you must demand that it is woven into all aspects of your company’s ecosystem.
When this industry honestly and meaningfully welcomes more than a homogenous population into its fold, everyone wins.
The tourism industry uses stories for lots of reasons and in lots of ways. Check out this webinar (5 Reasons to Disrupt Storytelling in the Tourism Industry) to learn why we need to be more thoughtful and responsible about the stories we tell — and how that can create a powerful ripple effect that promotes a more sustainable future for tourism, the planet, and people all around the world.