Choosing someone like Taylor Swift to promote tourism during the height of her career is a destination marketing windfall that doesn't come around often. Many tourism boards, though, would rather be more strategic with their marketing than picking a face and hoping for the best.
Many travelers have a favorite movie, TV show or novel in mind when booking a vacation and some destinations want to give them a face to remember, too.
Sometimes these official tourism ambassadors — often movie stars or other A-list celebrities who are either paid or have pro bono agreements with tourism boards to promote destinations — successfully personify cities or countries and convince many people to book trips there.
In other cases, they miss the mark in a way that makes it difficult for travelers to identify with them and the place the celebrity is trying to promote or the terms of their work get called into question by local politicians. The latter is a reason why Miami rapper Pitbull’s relationship with Visit Florida made headlines in December.
Pitbull had been the state’s global tourism ambassador for one year starting in August 2015, and helped spark a battle over tourism marketing funding in the most-visited U.S. state when he was pressured into disclosing the details of his $1 million contract last year.
Visit Florida chose Pitbull for his multinational appeal, particularly in Latin America, which includes large source markets for Florida, and to reach a younger generation of travelers.
Pitbull frequently used Visit Florida’s #LoveFL hashtag and his “Sexy Beaches” music video were all part of the marketing campaign. The rapper provided an authentic image of South Florida and the campaign played into how millions of travelers perceive the state and why they choose to visit each year.
Will Seccombe, the ex-Visit Florida CEO, had said that he Pitbull had a “huge” impact. He said more than one million pieces of content had been shared using the #LoveFL hashtag.
Some 13.2 million people have viewed the “Sexy Beaches” music video on YouTube, and that doesn’t include other platforms. Visit Florida also used “Sexy Beaches” in a TV ad.
The fallout from Pitbull’s ambassadorship led to several resignations at the destination marketing organization and the Florida House of Representatives voted last week to significantly cut funding to Visit Florida.
But tourism ambassadors usually aren’t subject to such turbulence and they can be transformational for destinations. Whether it’s serenading travelers with, “Welcome to New York, it’s been waiting for you” or telling them to call a local and learn first-hand what a place is like to visit, a celebrity’s endorsement and promotional efforts can be valuable if the person remains trustworthy and out of trouble.
For many destination marketing organizations, celebrity endorsements are too big a gamble while others go all-in and plaster someone’s face on TV screens, billboards and bus stops in key markets.
Tourism ambassadors ideally have universal appeal — at least across key visitor markets for a destination — and are often the face of marketing campaigns. Their ambassadorships can be short or long-lived but usually don’t last longer than a few years to prevent a destination from seeming stale.
Humans, real or fictitious, also aren’t the only types of tourism ambassadors. Cartoon characters or creatures such as Hello Kitty and Godzilla, for example, have been used to promote Japan’s tourism industry and James Bond was introduced as Visit Britain’s tourism ambassador after the London Summer Olympics in 2012.
Actor Chris Hemsworth is Tourism Australia’s official global tourism ambassador. Tourism Australia introduced Hemsworth as the face of the destination in January 2016 and the tourism board has generated more than $60 million in publicity to date, said John O’Sullivan, Tourism Australia’s managing director.
Hemsworth is popular across a number of Tourism Australia’s top markets, including the U.S. and China, said O’Sullivan. “Besides the celebrity side of who he is, what he brings to us is a really authentic Australian story of someone who grew up in Victoria learning to surf but also spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory with indigenous populations.”
The “Thor” and “Star Trek” actor has been particularly active during his ambassorship by meeting with travel agents from the U.S., taking trips around Australia and posting photos on his social media showing why he loves to travel and explore the country, for example. “He’s really exceeded a lot of expectations that we had,” said O’Sullivan. “You often see a lot of ambassadorial roles where there’s an ad component, a launch and then the ad still plays but the involvement of that person doesn’t necessarily meet your expectations.”
Tourism Australia, like some other destination marketing organizations, has used ambassadors for specific markets. The organization currently has Chinese actor Wu Xiubo promoting Australia in China as part of both countries’ year-long tourism partnership and New York City is using Chinese pianist Lang Lang to encourage Chinese travelers to visit the city.
Below are five other high-profile tourism ambassadors:
>>Taylor Swift moved to New York City in 2014 and joined forces with the city to tout its attractions and gems to millennials though she has multigenerational and global appeal. Her hit single, “Welcome to New York,” became a new anthem for the city and helped portray the Big Apple as a welcoming place. Many destination marketers consider her to be one of the most successful examples of a tourism ambassador.
>>James Cameron signed on as tourism ambassador for Tourism New Zealand’s 100% Pure New Zealand campaign last year. The marketing campaign included a video of Cameron and his wife exploring the mountains, glaciers and rivers that drive the country’s “100% Pure” eco-focused brand.
>>Actor Jackie Chan got the nod from Indonesia’s tourism officials to become the country’s official tourism ambassador to China in 2014. Indonesia planned to use Chan to help attract more outbound Chinese tourists to the country and tourism officials said they didn’t allocate a budget for Chan’s role because it was an “honorary title.”
Photo credit: Tourism ambassadors can help spur travelers to visit cities and countries. Pictured is Taylor Swift performing her single 'Welcome to New York' in Times Square in New York City in 2014. Greg Allen / Associated Press