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Should tourism return to “normal? “

The changing role of destination marketing organizations

By Carl Ribaudo
Brought to you by the Sierra Sun and the Insights Collective
This peak demand pattern is typical for several mountain destinations throughout the West.
Source: INNTOPIA for use by Insights Collective

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank composed of tourism industry experts from across the country with a combined 250 years of experience. For more information, visit http://www.theinsightscollective.com.

Remember the fondness one had for 2019 and the previous decade when tourism experienced some of the most significant travel spending increases?

Tourism industry revenues grew with hotels sprouting and new restaurant concepts at every turn. Consumers were absorbing price increases without much complaint, and municipalities enjoyed strong transient occupancy and sales tax growth. If only this virus could be tamed, and things could return to what was once familiar.

While many destinations across the West would love to see a return to that time, a more profound and more fundamental question needs to be considered: Should tourism return to normal? The COVID-19 crisis has given the tourism industry, municipalities, and residents a needed pause to consider that question and, if necessary, consider a different future.

“It could be a perfect time for destination marketing organizations to assess their future and what role they play moving forward,” said Brian London, CEO of London Tourism Publications, and an Insights Collective member.

A New Trend Emerges

Even before COVID changed the landscape, the tourism industry struggled to grapple with significant systematic marketplace changes including “overtourism” and the impacts of climate change. These issues have  only been exacerbated by COVID-19, causing all involved to consider the best way forward.

Pre-COVID, tourism destinations and destination marketing organizations such as chambers of commerce and the like, were on near autopilot — growth in visitor volume, travel spending and tax collections had reached a level of near predictability. The lodging industry had experienced consistent growth in both average daily revenue and revenue per available room (RevPAR). Attractions had seen consistent growth, and municipalities even enjoyed consistent and growing tax collections that had become ever more critical to their general fund budgets.

“The industry had seen incredible success since the 2008 recession and was poised to continue before COVID significantly impacted travel and tourism,”  added Susan Rubin-Stewart Customer insight expert at SRS Consulting and also a member of the Insights Collective.

Overtourism

But like all trends, there is always an unintended consequence that few, if any, in the industry could see or wanted to see. This growth in visitor volume and travel spending led to peak visitation, also known as overtourism, in each significant destination. 

Overtourism brought forward a host of issues that impacted the destination and the local community. The data provided by INNTOPIA (see graphic) is representative of many destinations throughout the West. This chart shows consistent occupancy above 90% and, at times, close to 100%. 

The problems associated with this demand level vary from alienating residents to overloading infrastructure and the natural environment. Below is a summary of the issues:

Alienated residentsResidents often voice various concerns, including traffic congestions, rising rents, over-crowded access to recreation, thus impacting their quality of life.  
Impacted infrastructureThe visitors’ infrastructure is often the same as residents; thus, visitation adds to wear and tear to the community. Bike trails, recreation activities, and attractions are all impacted. Often these impacts are not calculated into fees and taxes that visitors pay.
Impacted and potential damage to the environmentPerhaps one of the biggest concerns is the potential damage to the local environment. Parking is often full, but potential visitors are not informed until they arrive, creating additional travel and vehicle miles traveled, further impacting air quality and additional cars on the road. 
Impacts on local cultureWhenever there are significant increases in visitor volume, there are impacts on the community’s local culture. Residents develop a specific flow of life-based on the local culture. They develop patterns and rhythms, when they shop, where and when they recreate, how they take care of the place, etc. Increased volumes of visitors can wreak havoc with local community culture creating negative perceptions to visitors. 

An opportunity to rethink the future

These issues combined have led in many destinations to the “rise of the resident,” who has morphed into a political force and wanting a say in tourism policy. 

Many destinations are becoming more supportive in implementing sustainable programs, effectively trying to manage tourism better. While important, these efforts fail to consider the more fundamental visitor volume issue, available destination capacity and pricing. 

“The destination, including the tourism industry, local government and residents, will need to reconcile how many visitors their destination can effectively handle AND get the desired behavior once visitors arrive,” according to Ralf Garrison, Insights Collective founder.

The current situation presents a unique moment-in-time for destinations: Stay the course or pivot in a new direction? 

The Insights Collective recommends destinations resist the inclination to confuse the COVID-19 situation specifically with the underlying forces of change that were already present before the pandemic, but consider it an opportunity to rethink the future. 

Carl Ribaudo is a tourism industry thought leader, consultant, speaker and writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe. He can be reached at carl@smgonline.net.


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