Residents, not visitors, are the ultimate customers of destination marketing organizations, which is why it’s important that tourism address the needs of residents first.
Resident sentiment can determine a destination’s ability to bounce back from the pandemic-recession. It’s hard to see a best-case recovery scenario without support for visitors from the resident population.
“Residents matter. A critical aspect of COVID-19 management is communicating to residents how the tourism industry is working to implement management practices that will keep them, as well as visitors, safe,” said Ralf Garrison, founder of the Insights Collective, a pandemic economy think tank.
Given the wave of financial hardship that is hitting many destinations, the idea of complaining about visitor behavior may seem extremely out-of-touch. Everywhere you look in the tourism sector – hotel occupancy, airline traffic, cruise ships that can’t even leave port – declines of more than 90 percent forced organizations of all shapes and sizes to take drastic steps to survive.
In these conditions, who wouldn’t trade an empty downtown for one bustling with visitors, even if they behaved a little impolitely?
Scrutiny of visitor behaviors
Open destinations are facing a growing backlash to tourism rather than appreciation that it continues to bring in revenue. If anything, visitors are being held to an even higher standard than normal.
In Colorado, White River National Forest Public Information Officer David Boyd reported heavier use of trails in the region has led to more litter.
Around Lake Tahoe, residents staged a series of rallies in five different locations to protest tourism-related issues. A historic heat wave recently sent visitors flowing into the destination, which is one of relatively few in the area that has remained open for business. A surge in travel that should have been spread out across the region was instead concentrated in places like Tahoe, resulting in packed stores, slowed traffic, and trash that overflowed from containers.
The protests began with online complaints and pictures of trash sites, but they ended up drawing several hundred people to greet tourists on their way in and out of town with signs and demands for better behavior.
Another protest took the form of a petition calling on tourism officials in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to redirect marketing funds toward cleaning up after visitors.
This is one of the underappreciated impacts of the pandemic – the presence of other people has gone from an inconvenience at worst to a potential threat to public health. And as tourism slowly resumes, this scrutiny of visitors will only increase.
“I think we are seeing a “rise of residents’ and their involvement in the tourism industry within the destination because they have grown weary of the impacts. They want a voice,” said Carl Ribaudo, president and chief strategist of SMG consulting.
Health vs. quality of life vs. the economy
The danger of this trend is that we are increasingly left with two kinds of destinations for the next several months: places that can’t accept visitors for health reasons and places that don’t want any more visitors for quality-of-life reasons. That dynamic will only complicate an already slow climb back to a healthy level of tourism for everyone.
“Mountain travel had a long, 70-month revenue recovery from the Great Recession, driven by a dramatic economic downturn. All things being equal, we could expect the same as we travel along a Covid continuum. But things are not equal; the recent economic slowdown is a symptom of the Covid-19 pandemic, not a cause,” said Tom Foley, senior vice president of Analytics at Inntopia, a resort marketing and ecommerce platform. “While we fully expect economic recovery to be measured with a calendar, not a watch, until the pandemic is controlled and the long-term economic damage is fully understood, we can only guess as to whether recovery for the destination travel industry will be shorter or longer than last time around.”
The Insights Collective recommends informing visitors of the impact litter can have on the natural environment through signage and educational outreach. Working with city officials to ensure trash receptacles are available for use is also a good idea.
Visitors are guests in our communities. It’s appropriate to hold them accountable for their behavior to ensure they follow basic social responsibilities (and the law) by not leaving trash everywhere, or that they follow health and safety protocols.
Remember, a place in which we’d want to live is also going to be a place in which others will want to visit.