The current sentiment in the tourism industry goes something like this: Travel can be a personally transformative experience; it shouldn’t just be something people do. Climate change is a major issue; we need to do something about it — and make travelers aware of the issue too. There should be more focus on the place people visit and not just on the travelers who visit them.
These are long overdue considerations in an industry that has historically prioritized travelers over local residents and quantity over quality.
Yet, the question remains: How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?
In a recent conversation with a colleague, we discussed the ways travel experiences can be enhanced. This includes everything from helping travelers approach trips more intentionally to integrating community-led and active learning opportunities into tours. It means everything from properly preparing travelers before they leave home to encouraging people to reflect upon their travels after trips are over.
The good news is there are a lot of innovative ways for service providers to enhance experiences for travelers while also having a positive impact on the places people travel.
But for many of these same service providers and destinations, this is an entirely new way of approaching tourism. All of these ideas might sound great in theory. However, it can feel overwhelming both for businesses implementing them and travelers experiencing them.
As my colleague noted, we’re talking about turning a fun trip with a clear beginning and end into a sprawling journey that spans several weeks longer and challenges the predefined idea of “fun.”
We can’t just snap our fingers and upend the entire concept of a vacation overnight … nor should we.
Change takes time. It will take time for tour operators to foster relationships with new partners. To adjust their offerings. To intentionally incorporate new elements and messaging.
It will take time for destinations to work with on-the-ground partners to clean up their supply chains. To develop logistical systems that nudge travelers toward more sustainable ways of visiting and experiencing. To rethink the way they’ve marketed popular sites and attractions, and be willing to amplify new narratives that challenge travelers’ expectations.
It is also going to take time for travelers to evolve. Conscious consumerism is on the rise. However, we also know the knowledge-action gap is real, and that changing expectations and behavior is hard.
Hard, but not impossible.
This means that, as the tourism industry develops more intentional and responsible experiences, there are small actions travel service providers and destinations can take to push the needle forward.
Which one of these will you implement in your business this week, this month, or this year?
Provide more context in pre-trip communication.
The tourism industry often focuses on where people should travel and what they should do, but it needs to put more emphasis on why people travel and how they should engage with experiences. This messaging should begin before travelers even leave home.
Yes, travelers need logistical details about what to pack and how to reach a tour’s starting point. But pre-trip communication can and should be so much more.
Enlighten travelers about environmental and socio-cultural challenges in the destinations they’re visiting, and explain how they can be part of the solution. Offer questions or prompts travelers can ask themselves to set appropriate expectations and better prepare for a visit. Suggest articles, books, documentaries, and podcasts that provide background information and context — this includes those “unheard” narratives (actually shared by under-represented communities) that the tourism industry has previously pushed to the side.
Destinations are not off the hook. They should also be providing this information — and encouraging their on-the-ground partners to do the same.
Suggest thematic destination experiences that challenge the status quo.
It’s common for destinations, in particular, to suggest activities based on particular interests or geographical areas. While this is helpful for guiding travelers in their decision making, these suggestions are unsurprisingly innocuous and predictable.
We need to move beyond this if we want to “create awareness” and “educate” travelers. There is a huge opportunity to develop thematic visitation suggestions that encourage people to think about and move through places with a different perspective. For example, is it possible to string together local initiatives that are tackling the climate crisis? Can you create a self-guided walking tour that tells the story of race relations in a place? What about highlighting small businesses with a common theme that are owned by marginalized communities?
Doing this challenges the common narratives travelers might expect. It also disperses them beyond the popular sites, supports businesses that lack huge marketing budgets, and offers deeper context during the travel experience.
Encourage people to talk with each other and reflect on their experiences.
Society is increasingly individualistic, but travel can be the ultimate bridge builder between people who might not otherwise interact.
So many guides end an activity or day with this question: “Did you like the tour?” This yes/no question doesn’t do anything to encourage thoughtful reflection or conversation. Instead, use open-ended questions that encourage people to think about their experiences. Listen with intention.
While those working in tourism want to create “fun” or “interesting” experiences (and they should!), that doesn’t mean travelers shouldn’t think critically or that everyone needs to agree. In fact, if travel is intended to encourage growth, challenge what people think they know, and open up people’s perspectives and understanding about the greater world, the last thing we want to do is close down interesting conversations before they even have a chance to start.
Again, this is not limited to tour operators. Other service providers can also get creative in this regard: Put conversation cards in hotel lobbies. Pose thought-provoking facts in public transportation hubs. Point visitors toward open mic events in communities.
Offer active learning opportunities.
Stop talking at tourists and get them involved! Hands-on activities are a powerful way to help people understand complex issues — and they are far more interesting than just moving from place to place.
This is to say, for example, that there is a great need to talk about issues like the climate crisis with travelers, but take this one step further and make it possible for them to participate in a beach clean up or trail building activity with a local community group.
Even if a deep active learning opportunity like this isn’t available, make it possible for travelers to make even the smallest bits of a trip more meaningful. There might not be a chance to actually help make a meal, but could a chef talk a bit about the local ingredients before travelers dig in? They might not get to participate in coral restoration, but could the local dive company show a short video about the conservation work and make it possible for travelers to support it in some way?
Do as you want travelers to do.
Actions speak louder than words, so if the tourism industry wants to nudge travelers toward more empathetic, responsible, and transformative travel experiences, it must put its intentions into action.
If you want them to adopt more environmentally responsible actions, then use electric vehicles on tours and ensure tour guides drink out of reusable water bottles. If you want them to support local businesses, then stay at local accommodations and eat at locally owned restaurants on your tour. If you want them to reflect upon their experiences, ask open-ended questions and practice active listening yourself.
The tourism industry can talk all day long about how it expects travelers to behave, but if the businesses and people working within it don’t model the behavior they expect, they can’t expect real change to happen — even incrementally.
Use post-trip surveys to measure more than satisfaction.
The tourism industry is stuck in a quantitative mindset. This makes sense: Numbers and data have been the cornerstone of success for many years.
But transformation, critical thinking, and behavior change don’t necessarily happen on a five-point scale. This means the tourism industry needs to be more creative in thinking about what success looks like and how to measure it.
Like those yes/no questions tour guides ask, boxing people in with standard survey questions doesn’t encourage internal reflection about an experience. It is okay to ask about whether people enjoyed particular aspects of a trip or destination, but can you also ask about what they learned or what surprised them? Did they participate in anything that changed their actions at home?
It's not possible to know what we don’t ask. Asking more qualitative, open-ended questions may encourage people to think about their travels in a way that differs from the past. It can also surface innovative ways for enhancing experiences for future travelers.