I don't know about you, but one of the biggest impacts Covid has had on me, is that when it comes to the weekend I am just itching to escape this home=work life. Last weekend, pumped up with excitement I launched my search for "where to go next." Only to be faced with destination after destination melding into a complete blur of sameness before my eyes. Surely, I thought to myself, cities in the Netherlands have more to offer than canals, cheese, tulips and windmills? Yet here I was staring at almost the exact same cookie-cutter destination website over and over again.
I know the Netherlands is desperately trying to differentiate its destinations in order to attract more tourists to different regions of the country, aka away from Amsterdam. So this utterly deflating experience got me thinking about whether this problem of homogeneity was a marketing or a product development issue. This is a critical question because it relates to how we think about and define destinations, and moving from there, how we can begin to conceptualise destination differentiation.
More often than not what we see presented, whether it’s the Netherlands, East Africa or the South Pacific, is merely a cookie-cutter toolkit of parts. Whether those parts are canals, the Big 5, or sun, sea and sand. We are presented with a variation on a theme that is so limited that it throws for example every island in the entire world into the same box, no matter whether that island is Praslin, Zanzibar, Samoa or Barbados.
It seems to me that we delimit our destinations by the attractions on offer; and then offer up storytelling marketing as the solution.
But is that really the answer? Is destination development just an exercise in marketing?
On the one hand, I think there most certainly is a marketing issue. However, on the other hand, it seems there is a deeper problem at play in our definition of destinations and how neatly we try force them into a few generic packaged boxes. And while some of the wrapping has changed a bit over the years to become more evocative, the fact remains that the contents haven’t changed much in decades. Besides for the addition of a few local ingredients, a smattering of sustainability, and an appliqué of compelling storytelling.
So what does that mean?
It means that there is a tremendous opportunity for destinations to redefine themselves in a more innovative way.
But how do they do that you ask?
One of the most critical steps that destinations need to take is to look beyond the tourist to consider what their specific sense of place, lived experience and identity is. We need to see destinations not just as places that people visit, but more importantly as places that people live. Building on from this, is to look at the network and ecosystem of experiences that are lived and can be created to play with people’s innate curiosity, sense of wonder, adventure and excitement.
You see tourism is not just about attractions, nor is it about tourists. Tourism is about creating a state of play. It is about stepping out of the humdrum of life to experience something else for a moment. Something that takes us away from our troubles and stressors, and reconnects us with ourselves and others. It follows therefore, that destinations are not just places that we visit.
Destinations are places where we live and want to be. The most incredible destinations are not those with slick marketing materials, they are those that have a powerful sense of place and life.
Now I am sure you might be wondering what gives me the right to write this? I am an architect, urban planner, a town and regional planner, a creative, tourism innovator and co-founder of Know Your Tourist. Our mission is to unleash innovation through education so that we can create better places for people to live, and fall in love with.
We are working with a new generation of innovative destinations and tourism businesses which are seeking to define themselves differently in this new (almost) post-Covid world.
Reach out to us here if you want to know how we can help you.