It seems almost quaint to think that, not too long ago, the job of tourism boards and destination marketers could be described so simply: Get more people to visit your destination.
In an age where local residents from Barcelona and Venice to Boracay Island are protesting tourism itself, measuring success by swelling visitor numbers no longer feels relevant. The holy grail of a sustainable yet lucrative tourism industry has, by definition, come to mean tourism that local residents and stakeholders feel good about too.
Realizing this goal presents myriad challenges. Tourism boards and destination marketers have very different configurations around the world, including government agencies that can set 10-year plans (and allocate the resources to achieve them) and private-sector membership bodies that exist solely to help the bottom lines of their profit-motivated members. In addition, many of the destination marketing outfits — creative and committed as they are — don’t have the expertise or resources to effortlessly adapt to a management-based approach overnight.
The trendline is crystal clear: Destinations that are to remain competitive and attractive to visitors for years to come will have to start protecting their communities and cultural capital now. This shift in approach requires reimagining the way that destination marketing and management intersect — as well as incorporating the concerns of local stakeholders into the tourism boards’ strategic planning.
Rethink the Game Plan
Management has become something of a buzzword used by destination marketers around the world to signify that they are woke to the age of overtourism. The prevalent myth that destination marketers can seamlessly become managers without new resources or funding models, however, is part of why overtourism has become such a problem, said Kevin Molony, the co-founder of the New Orleans Sustainable Tourism Task Force. The organization is an independent group of citizens that began working with stakeholders as well as city and state leaders in 2018 to try and alter the community’s approach to tourism.
Molony thinks it’s clear that “tourism marketing should exist under the umbrella of tourism management, never the other way round,” and that the community has to be involved in deciding what kind of tourists they want to attract.
Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, said some of the best examples of a management-over-marketing approach right now come from smaller, emerging destinations looking beyond visitor numbers to include average length of stay, amount of money spent, and guest satisfaction level as key indicators in defining success.
One example is the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association in British Columbia, Canada. The group decided to split its resources, with 60 percent going to development and planning and 40 percent going to promotion. “The fascinating thing is that they’ve increased their number of visitors, length of stay, average spend — and they’ve improved relations between First Nation indigenous people and the greater majority white community,” Durband said.
On the other end of the visitor numbers spectrum is Holland, in particular Amsterdam, which is perhaps the overtourism poster child that has done the most so far to reverse course. The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC) Holland Marketing, the country’s destination marketing group, is making sure that marketing is just one of its four pillars: intelligence and insights; strategy and branding; destination development; and then marketing.
Notably, shifting the focus to those pillars has meant reconsidering how the group defines success in its funding agreement with the government. Where once it was strictly about increasing visitors and matching government funding with private sector partnerships, now NBTC Holland Marketing managing director Jos Vranken said that the public sector goals have to diverge somewhat with private sector partners.
“There was always a perfect alignment between public and private interest because everyone wanted to see more visitors, but the long-term scope and the nature of challenges of the destination mean public and private interests tend to diverge a little more than in the past,” Vranken said. He added that he hoped this divergence would only be short-term as new partnerships develop.
Tourists Vs. Locals
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how sustainable a destination is is how its residents feel about tourists who visit. In western Europe, the public sector is increasingly using digital platforms to solicit feedback from local stakeholders — including local business and in some cases residents — according to European Tourism Association Secretary General Tim Fairhurst. In Slovenia, regional destinations that want to participate in the nationwide Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism certification system must survey their local community every three years regarding the public sentiment surrounding tourism.
In Holland, Vranken said that the tourism board is helping its stakeholders “look at tourism no longer as a goal in itself but as a means to various ends.” While those ends differ depending on the region — and depend on regional destination marketing organizations’ goals — the hope is that policy makers and businesses “look at solutions and developments that tackle not just tourism industry and future guests but have a more multifunctional purpose that includes residents.” It also means inviting residents to co-create tourism policies.
Fairhurst echoed this, saying the best destinations “don’t develop stuff for tourists, they develop stuff for people.”
A decade on, what today feels something of a taboo in the tourism world — openly admitting that there is actually an upper limit to the amount of tourists who can visit a destination — will likely be a baseline assumption of a sustainable destination. As Vranken said, that will depend on having the appropriate data and metrics.
“The answer is absolutely yes, there is a carrying capacity, but in order to measure it we have to establish a body with the authority and funding to measure it,” he said.
This future will also likely depend on governments prioritizing sustainable tourism management as a policy priority. In the U.S., destination marketing organizations like Visit Florida are still more likely to be fighting for their lives than planning how residents might feel about tourists 10 years out. It’s difficult for these organizations to come up with nuanced plans if their concerns can hardly go past the next funding cycle.
In order to truly invest in protecting a destination’s future — for the enjoyment of tourists and residents alike — tourism officials and governments are starting to work in cohesion, rather than at odds.
The time to start doing this was yesterday.