It’s now proven — beyond all the observed anecdotal evidence, but albeit in a limited study — that the information tourists receive about a destination influences their choices while on vacation, but also that directing tourists to lesser-known attractions and areas doesn’t lead them to have a less satisfying vacation experience.
These conclusions emerged this month from a real-life experiment on a group of vacationing tourists, run by Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, in collaboration with the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions and personal digital assistant service Travel with Zoey.
“There are influences that don’t really need much evidence or further research to say, ‘oh yeah, people are driven by sort of what’s in the guidebook and what’s physically obvious,’ but we were curious if we could tweak it, if we could mess with it, and if different technological platforms for tweaking it would have different outcomes,” said Ondrej Mitas, lead researcher and senior lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences’ Centre of Expertise in Leisure, Tourism and Hospitality in the Netherlands.
A total of 150 tourists staying at 10 resorts in the Dutch province of Overijssel during the summer of 2021 were split into four groups: a control group received an app with a map of the best-rated excursions in the area, and a second group received a different map within the same app that showed less-visited locations or what researchers call “policy-driven tips.” An additional two groups were offered a WhatsApp contact to chat with for personalized recommendations via Travel with Zoey.
“What was most surprising about our findings is that when people got sent to the better-known attractions they went more there; when people got sent to the lesser-known attractions, they went more there — but their evaluation of the region, the vacation park where they stayed, and of their vacation overall basically was exactly the same. That’s remarkable,” said Mitas. “It means that people can go to attractions of different quality and have a same quality vacation.”
Researchers say it’s good news for those popular attractions and areas facing increased pressure from crowds as well as for those areas that suffer from undertourism. They also say it’s a wake up call for the travel industry, and tourism boards in particular, to take a more conscious approach to the information they share with tourists.
“This gives Overijssel opportunities to achieve qualitative growth in tourism and recreation without increasing the burden,” said Wendy Weijdema, research and innovation manager at MarketingOost, the regional tourism board for Overijssel, in a release.
Further findings show that tourists gave higher evaluations for the Travel with Zoe interactive recommendation tool, noting it was “more personal, more socially present” than the passive app showing a map with popular tourist sights.
A Change in The Cultural Narrative
Since the advent of overtourism, European destinations such as Amsterdam have been discussing, even during the great tourism downturn, how to tackle new marketing strategies and tools to disperse tourists and reduce future overcrowding. The Amsterdam & Partners tourism board, for instance, has been implementing a strategy of marketing lesser-known places and is doing a great job, Mitas said.
How to drive visitors towards undertouristed areas — whether through new technology or through changed marketing messaging — to spread the benefits of tourism while alleviating pressure on host communities remains under study for most other destination management organizations, including in the North American west where a new kind of rural overtourism has formed.
“The cultural narrative influences what shows up in the information,” said Mitas, citing the example of Prague and the common single map and history of the coronation route that reappears in multiple sources of information, leading to a single path being overcrowded while others that are one street over remain empty despite offering a similar experience.
The region chosen in the study, located an hour east of Amsterdam, has two Hanseatic cities that get crowded on the weekends, and the aim was to get people out of there on weekend afternoons and to some lesser known places.
One of those small villages in the area, in particular, was feeling the impact of overcrowding pre-pandemic as a result of becoming popular among group tour operators out of East Asia.
“Now it’s again starting to get to the point where the few locals that live there are feeling the tension of pressure from tourists,” said Mitas.
Marketing the numerous nature areas that are in the area, including agritourism, as well as the other smaller fortified cities or Garrison towns with medieval architecture would disperse those crowds, which is what the study was aiming to show.
Reworking Those Bucket Lists
Most tourism campaigns thus far in Europe and Canada are back to focusing on traditional experiences that visitors might have missed the last two years, albeit with more focus on the outdoors. The bucket list invitation remains, potentially risking the return of a pattern the industry has said it seeks to avoid.
Efforts are in their infancy in a number of destinations, such as France and Spain, to build more localized apps and run co-marketing campaigns that lead to lesser known secondary cities and local providers, while a handful of independent tour operators are offering more customized itineraries leaning towards sustainability and taking climate action into account.
But the reality is that no one solution will fit all. In the capitalism-driven U.S., most travelers either go with the convenience of online booking through the major online travel agencies — leading to the popular spots — or go by word of mouth, as the gap between a desire for an affordable trip and a conscious trip remains large. In Amsterdam, there is an egalitarian culture of cooperation that runs deep and requires deliberation on issues, Mitas said, contrasting it with Slovakia, his homeland, where there’s a more hierarchical top down society.
Ultimately, the study speaks to the “bucket list traveler” dilemma. How to solve it?
“Give people the stuff for their bucket list — they’re waiting for you, whether you are a tour operator or a destination management organization, or a writer for a travel magazine. You are the source of the bucket list, you are the source of the ideas. So tell people what should be on their bucket list that’s not on anybody else’s,” said Mitas.
Travelers have to be told about the lesser known places because the desire is there to avoid crowded areas. Conversely, tourism boards and other industry players can help lesser known places build their own special bucket lists.
But how much will is there at the government levels, particularly in developing countries and even in areas of Europe that are looking to buffer up against the impacts of the Ukraine war, to steer people away from their most dominant attractions at a time of economic recovery?
For Dutch tourism boards, spreading tourists and sustainability go hand in hand, Mitas said. Just like domestic tourism has flourished, it would mean going in a more sustainable direction long-term, including in terms of heightened climate awareness. The two go hand in hand.
Ultimately, Mitas had one clear message for tourism marketing bodies coming out of the study.
“It is not inevitable that you do not market your highlights. You don’t have to do it. People can just google the highlights. They will figure it out. So it’s not inevitable. DMOs should feel empowered not to be a Google, but to add some value to Google. Not to serve the bucket list, but to make the bucket list and to make it differently.”