When we think of the traditional tourism model, it’s based around two key questions: Where? And what?
Where are you traveling? Where will you stay? Where will you spend your days?
What are you going to do? What are you going to pack? What do you want to see? What do you want to achieve?
These two questions tell us everything we need to know about the fundamentals of travel: The destination and the activity.
The tourism industry is starting to turn its attention toward surfacing appropriate community-led opportunities, attracting travelers with intentionality, and encouraging people to slow down and savor travel experiences. This means it is also the perfect time to reframe tourism, its purpose, and how people engage with it — starting with these two new questions.
From “Where?” to “Why?”: A Question of Purpose
The surface-level question where focuses strictly on a place without purpose. Moving beyond where is the question why.
Asking why encourages people to embrace a sense of curiosity and wonder, and forces them to probe more deeply about their reason for choosing to visit a certain place. This sense of purpose should be important to the tourism industry because this is the point at which travelers are forced to consider and elucidate their reason for visiting a place.
If they dig deep enough and realize the reason for visiting a certain place is simply for the passport stamp or to tick the destination off a list, that may not be particularly desirable from an industry perspective. However, it does force travelers to be honest with themselves, and that may be jarring for those people who consider themselves to be “sustainable” travelers.
Help Travelers Find Their Why
The behind-the-scenes reimagining of travel experiences is rarely as straightforward as simply stating the new intentions directly to travelers. That is, people will still center travel decisions around where. However, there are ways to frame messaging in order to encourage this deeper thinking about why people choose to travel to certain places.
- Suggest destination activities by theme or topic. We already see this to some extent on destination websites that lump activities related to culture, hiking, or food all in one place. This is a great way to get people to think beyond where they’re traveling to more specifically pinpointing their reason for choosing this destination.
There is a greater opportunity here, though, and that is suggesting several activities tied together through trip cohesion, or a story told throughout the course of a journey or experience. Trip cohesion — which can be developed by destinations, guides, or tour operators — builds purpose around a trip by specifically surfacing the story that can only be found in this singular place.
- Help travelers define their interests and goals. Travel agents are back in style, and there’s been an uptick in travel coaches as well. In both cases, there should be time spent getting to know travelers and understanding their reason for traveling. In some cases, defining the why then leads to the selection of the where, instead of the other way around.
Exercises like quizzes and this-vs.-that social content can also help people begin to think a bit more deeply about their travel-related decisions.
- Share stories from local people and other travelers about their why. What is it that makes this destination special? Places are unique for a reason, so empower others to explain what that uniqueness is.
Seek out a wide variety of people to tell their stories, but focus on place-specific stories versus activity-focused stories that could take place in any destination. Examples might be someone who visited a place to learn more about their family heritage or a person interested in a specific kind of wine grape grown only in this region. I really like this video about chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, which explains his connection to cooking and the backstory of his restaurant, making this particular place more than just another random restaurant.
From “What?” to “How?”: A Question of Intent
Once people have arrived at a destination, they have to do something. The obvious question is what that something is. That’s when the checklist comes out, and a trip takes shape around the must-do activities and must-see sites.
When the question shifts from what to how, people must think about the way they engage with an experience. This intention is important because this is where an activity that could arguably be done anywhere is rooted in that sense of place. Only in this specific place could someone participate in something and hear this specific story or take away this specific lesson.
Of course, we all like to do things when we travel, and maybe it doesn’t matter to some people whether they hike in Peru or Portugal. But for those travelers guided toward more intentional decision-making while on holiday, thinking more critically about how they experience something often creates the conditions for more thoughtful participation.
Help Travelers Consider How
Again, the goal here isn’t to blatantly force people to upend their travel style. But the way the industry frames messages and chooses to amplify certain people and experiences naturally encourages people to look beyond that checklist of sites — or at least approach them with a bit more thoughtfulness.
- Highlight activities that incorporate an environmental or social impact twist. People want to participate in adventure activities like kayaking and cultural experiences like cooking classes, and destinations and tour operators are happy to amplify and offer them.
But if there are any organizations that take those experiences one step further that encourage travelers to give back in a meaningful way, highlight those experiences even more. For example, Sydney by Kayak offers eco tours that integrate sightseeing by kayak with stories about conservation efforts and corporate clean-up kayak tours as well. And in four places across the United Kingdom, Migrateful offers cooking classes taught by migrant, asylum seeker, and refugee chefs. These are the same activities that might be on that checklist (the what) but with focused intention (the how).
- Build time for reflection into tours. Instead of jamming days with activities, hold space aside for reflection about the places you have visited and those still to come. Ask travelers about any thoughts or feelings that arose. What are people still curious about? What do they want to learn tomorrow?
- Offer a variety of ways to move through sites or spaces. When people are only focused on what, they often feel overwhelmed because of the lack of purpose. Museum fatigue is real, in large part because people feel like they have to visit — but then one exhibit blurs into the next blurs into the next.
At museums, specifically, give travelers clear guidance on ways to prepare for a more intentional visit, including videos to watch, questions to consider, and suggested ways to move through the space. A lot of museums include pre-visit guidance for teachers; here is an example for Brandywine Museum of Art, but search “pre-visit museum” for lots of other examples. Needless to say, defining purpose shouldn’t stop after once people get out of school, and these kinds of activities should be more visible, accessible, and inviting to all visitors.
But it’s not just museums; walking mindlessly through any space “just because” quickly becomes exhausting. Destinations can suggest guided or self-guided walking tours that offer context for a place. And any sites or attractions should be communicating with travelers about how they want people to engage and what behavior they expect when travelers visit.