From the moment each of us became aware of our surroundings, our personal stories started to take shape. What we saw, heard, interacted with, and encountered through our senses shaped our understanding of the space around us and our particular place in it. Over time, these encounters and experiences molded our opinions, attitudes, values, and belief systems. These, in turn, provide each of us with a blueprint for understanding, making sense of, and interpreting the world on a day-to-day basis.
The personal point of view you hold is your perspective. It’s the lens through which you see and approach your surroundings. It’s what allows you to see (your version of) the “big picture.”
Perceptions shape perspectives. This means that being aware of our perceptions and what has molded them gives us insight into why we have the perspective we do. This also means we have the capacity to think mindfully about and intentionally reshape perceptions to broaden or shift perspective.
"There is something to be said for Harry Houdini’s famous saying, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”
This has powerful implications within the tourism context. Just as we (as individuals and collectively as a community) can mindfully shift our perspective, we can help travelers do the same. To do this, it’s important to step back and look at how and why we historically told problematic travel-related stories.
Remember that perceptions are shaped by what people encounter through their five senses. In an attempt to provide comfortable and sanitized travel experiences, the tourism industry (from travel content creators to marketing teams) leaned on messaging that promoted this story. They created and prioritized content that was palatable, shareable, and lovely to consume, but it misrepresented reality and failed to provide context and nuance.
Over time, this shaped travelers’ expectations of what they would encounter when traveling. In turn, this helped create a destructive circular cycle that kept travelers unaware of the fact they perpetuated many of the problems woven into tourism, such as natural resource extraction and cultural commodification.
While these destructive storytelling practices have propped up the tourism industry in the past, it’s important to clarify some of the other circumstances that shape travelers’ perceptions. In many destinations and for many tour companies, an economic priority was placed on travelers’ desires versus locals’ needs, creating a hierarchy of sorts. Additionally, social and environmental costs are not generally itemized when travelers pay for their experiences.
In all of these cases, it comes down to this: Travelers don’t know what they don’t know.
Their problematic attitudes and belief systems about the travel experience have been reinforced by the tourism industry itself. This shapes their point of view that traveling is a means of “escape” and should be catered to their desires. And when they make decisions throughout the customer journey — where to go, what to do, how to act, what to expect — they act on their understanding (their perception) of what the act of travel is.
More travelers are intentionally seeking information that is changing the way they approach travel in a positive way. Nonetheless, travelers in general are unaware of:
- The negative environmental impact their presence has on the destinations they visit.
- The social burden they place on communities.
- Local norms and expectations.
- Indigenous history, culture, and stories.
- How their financial contributions do (or do not) benefit local people — and who those local people are.
- How to be part of the solution to the tourism industry’s problems rather than perpetuating and accelerating those problems.
What can be done to change the perceptions people have about travel? The list is non-exhaustive and offers the perfect opportunity to embrace creative thinking. But, here are several ideas the tourism industry can use to support this shift and meaningfully stand behind its philosophy of using travel as a force for good.
- Intentionally seek out and tell more diverse, transparent stories about destinations, sites, experiences, and the act of travel itself.
- Engage and amplify more diverse storytellers, who bring their unique perspectives and voices to the table. This is a chance for travelers to hear and learn about differing opinions and belief systems.
- Be more mindful of the words and images used to inspire and create awareness. Consider how the receiver of a message will interpret it.
- Don’t stop at telling travelers what. Go a step further and explain how and why.
- Itemize trip costs, including prices related to environmental and social factors. Additionally, itemize any environmental and social initiatives travelers’ fees pay for, such as rewilding efforts or carbon offset credits.
- If you have calculated your carbon emissions, post carbon labels on trips and offerings.
- Embrace transparency throughout your supply chain and destination. Do not hide missteps or shortcomings. Share your entire sustainability story — the good and the bad.
- Integrate hands-on activities that help people connect with difficult concepts such as the climate crisis.
- In addition to being more transparent about the challenges in destinations where travelers visit, tell them about the solutions to these challenges as well. Introduce them to local social impact initiatives. Encourage them to think about ways they can take action at home.
- Establish clear expectations with travelers. Just because they believe they deserve special access or treatment, doesn’t mean they should receive it.
- Integrate land acknowledgements into the travel experience.
- Work with travel content creators to ensure the stories they share accurately represent places, people, activities, and experiences.
People will do what they want with the information they receive, and there will always be people who choose not to fold new insight into their big-picture lens of the world. Yet, there is something to be said for Harry Houdini’s famous saying, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” When those working in tourism recognize the ability to shape travelers’ perceptions, they also create the conditions for a much-needed shift in perspective as well.