Souvenirs are an essential part of the travel experience, but they still haven't under gone the revolution like other parts of the travel economy. New innovative ways to support local artisans and communities in tourism are still unrealized.
Travelers hardly use the souvenirs they purchase at destinations, for the most part. They would derive longer lasting value from their souvenirs if delivery costs didn’t limit their purchase options and hamper the creativity of souvenir businesses.
In a time of growing awareness by travelers of their impact to the environment and of their own sustainability practices, hoarding trinkets from spur-of-the-moment purchases on trips might be facing a new level of scrutiny.
Yet, those trinkets, souvenirs, art and craft works are the lifeblood of local tourism economies across the globe. Hustling locals are able to feed their families because of what tourists purchase from them.
Souvenir shopping is a “huge export,” said Peter van Berkel, chairman of the International Inbound Travel Association and president of Travalco. In 2021, souvenir, gift and novelty sales in the U.S. alone amounted to around $19 billion, according to Statista.
One survey by YouGov found 65 percent of Americans will bring back at least one souvenir from their trips. “They play a huge role in the nostalgia, in the memories that are created,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of New York City Tourism + Conventions.
Souvenirs are destination marketing products to potential visitors. “On some level, it’s marketing because you buy those gifts also to take home,” said Dixon. About 44 percent gift souvenirs are for relatives and 22 percent for friends.
Many locals at destinations have built business around souvenirs, allowing them to support themselves and participate economically in the tourism economy. In Cambodia, for example, a major reason why large communities have grown around Angkor Wat was the amount of tourism that the temple complex attracts daily. Locals have made livelihoods there selling art and souvenirs to tourists.
Not only do souvenirs provide an economic means of support, they enable communities to preserve their culture and heritage and enrich the visitor experience. Some hotels in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, host sweetgrass master basket sowers of the Gullah Geechee community to support their guest experience.
But very often travelers don’t use the souvenirs they buy, with many ignored, thrown away or forgotten. “It helps them re-enjoy the destination, but they hardly use them,” said van Berkel.
Unused souvenirs can damage the environment. If the souvenir is plastic and cheap, it’s likely to end up in a landfill, said Matt Berna, president of Americas for Intrepid Travel.
What increases the likelihood of use of a souvenir after purchase is their functionality or its meaningfulness to the traveler, said Berna. People are more likely to value a product that is handcrafted and unique to the destination or a souvenir they helped create.
Kensington Tours guests will often purchase beautiful artisanal leather goods in Florence, artistic Murano glass in Venice or a Torito de Pucara in Peru, said Kelly Torens, vice president of product.
“The one and only time I’ve been to Chile I bought this amazing Alpaca blanket from a local craftswoman,” said New York City’s Dixon. “I use it every night on my bed and every time I see it, I think of that trip.”
A major limitation of what meaningful souvenirs a traveler can buy is due the fact that the larger a souvenir is, the more difficult it is to transport it home. Many large objects that would be meaningful to travelers are foregone because of the difficulty in transportation.
Travelers, for example, may find a painting at a local art seller they’d like to hang on their wall at home, but they know it would be expensive and a hassle to transport, especially overseas. There’s also the lack of confidence the valuable (sometimes fragile) item will arrive at their home on time and safe with the delivery providers available.
It’s no surprise that the most popular souvenirs by country are easy to carry on planes. Improvements in delivery costs and speed could diversify what souvenirs countries are known for.
Intrepid Travel’s Berna recalled a jewel and art mosaic shop in Jordan that partnered with logistics company DHL to deliver handcrafted mosaic and other goods costing over than $50 for free. “It’s with a carrier that’s trustworthy, probably could insure what you are buying because you want to make sure it shows up on time,” he said.
In addition, some souvenirs, even if they are of high quality, can expire in utility after purchase. They may exist in limited quantities like a bag of spices. A big value-add here would be where a delivery provider can help the original merchant refill the depleted souvenir, Berna added.
Photo credit: Souvenirs needs a revolution. Suraj Shakya / Unsplash