Over the last few years, the impact of tourism on local communities, resources and the environment has been a hot topic. Then COVID struck. Now, recovery is needed, but the question is – can this recovery take place in a better, more sustainable way? What are the lessons learned, particularly from the perspective of ethics and sustainability, and how can influencers help?
Prior to COVID, the travel industry was faced with a number of challenges. The most pertinent issue, according to Peter Jordan, tourism strategist and marketer (specialising in post-COVID travel and sustainability) and Founder of Gen C Traveller, was over-tourism.
“Rapid tourism growth was a worry. In some locations, this tourism influx was happening at an unsustainable pace. Bucket list tourism was also concerning many in the industry. This refers to the act of ticking off popular tourist sites as quickly as possible, just to get that photo, to say you’ve been there and then moving on. Unfortunately, influencers were playing a significant role in exacerbating this problem.”
Once COVID hit, many influencers and DMOs were stumped as to what to do. However, some took positive action. For instance, Kash Bhattacharya, from Budget Traveller, developed the Adopt a Hostel campaign where he encouraged people to buy vouchers for a future stay at a hostel. The project raised over 50,000 dollars which went directly to safeguarding the survival of the hostel industry.
Lessons that the pandemic has taught us
Looking at how influencers have stepped in to play a part in the revival of travel and tourism, there have been a few lessons learnt. The primary takeaway is that there needs to be a local focus.
“As an influencer or DMO, your first responsibility is to local people and local businesses. Not only because these are the people with whom you deal on a daily basis, but also because your local market is a very important one, and one that you have to nurture and respect,” says Peter.
Lebawit Lily Girma, Global Tourism Reporter at Skift, also highlights how the industry has learnt to stop promoting tourism as though it is some sort of colonial construct.
“These are people’s homes and people’s cultures and heritage and so I think that there is definitely a lesson coming out of this, that there is a more holistic way of promoting a destination. Not just as some sort of paradise on a postcard,” she comments.
Nick Montemaggi, CMO at IAMBASSADOR, speaks of how the shift to domestic tourism is causing problems for smaller communities.
“Many locals didn’t even know what they had in their own backyard. Now that they are exploring nearby destinations, the reality is that we’ve transitioned from mass tourism in major cities with foreign visitors to over-tourism in small towns by local visitors. For some towns, even 200 people in one day is considered over-tourism. As such, DMOs and local government have to work on sustainable flows and paths for people. We know that this is the new way of travel, so you need to prepare these destinations to adequately deal with the change.”
Challenges faced by influencers and DMOs on the road to recovery
There will be more challenges in store for travel influencers and DMOs as the industry gradually begins to recover. One of these challenges is ensuring a continuous flow of support for small local businesses despite a return to international travel. There will need to be a dramatic effort put towards activating the local, domestic market, encouraging people to spend money at local businesses, and generating a great sense of pride within local areas.
Another challenge will be that of outward communication. There needs to be a focus on providing a lot of reassurance that it is safe to travel, and that everyone in the destination is acting carefully and responsibility. The good news is that there will be plenty of opportunity to work with local influencers when it comes to achieving this.
What does ‘building back better’ mean for DMOs?
Lily insists that the tourism industry desperately needs a post-pandemic performance measurement.
“There is definitely that intent to want to do better and build back better, but you can’t do that unless you have metrics. These metrics must examine travel from both an environmental and social perspective,” she says.
Sustainable business plans must be put in place, and it all starts with what the local community wants.
“It’s all about creating, crafting and then sharing that vision across the destination and the partners you work with,” comments Peter.
But how can influencers and DMOs assist? The experts say that influencers were leading privileged lives pre-COVID and that now is the time to step into the shoes of the real traveller, live and experience the destination like a normal traveller would, while going back to getting to know a place, culture, etc. There must be a transition from ‘fast consumption’ to slow, authentic travel.
How can a DMOs and influencers incorporate ethics or sustainability into their marketing efforts?
DMOs must try to incorporate local content creators into their marketing efforts. It is no longer possible to side-line them and bring in foreign influencers. While success is based on numbers, reach, and audience, DMOs must balance it out and now is a really good opportunity.
“In a post-COVID world, everyone is interested in ‘backyard tourism’ and a lot of local influencers will have superior knowledge of their own backyard,” says Lily.
DMOs and influencers also need to find a way to encourage people to stay longer. In doing so, they need to be promoting locally made products, local businesses, fair trade, SMMEs, and look at tourism as a tool for social development.
“People are going to look at influencers with a microscope going forward. It is going to be so important to have integrity, and tell it like it is with context, and not shy away from the tough topics. So much has changed,” she adds.
A huge ethical responsibility for DMOs and influencers right now is working on communicating more multi-cultural messaging. Numerous surveys have demonstrated that consumers feel strongly about multi-cultural messaging, and that they will pick destinations going forward that show it and embrace it.
Changes to how the tourism industry will collaborate with influencers
In future, there is likely to be a stronger push towards selecting influencers not just based on their numbers, but on their messaging and authenticity. Travel suppliers will look to influencers who are ‘transparent’ in their dealings and who embrace the type of travel that has meaning, rather than worrying about the superficial aspects of visiting a new destination.
“Going forward, best practice when it comes to selecting influencers will be to do your research, and lots of it. Find out whether the individual truly has a passion and cares for the local community and, most importantly, ensure that he or she shares the same values and ethics as your organisation,” Nick concludes.