As we enter not just a new year but a new decade, I believe that there has never been a greater time for travel and tourism.

Last decade marked the first time that 1 billion people traveled across an international border as a visitor in a single year. That’s over a billion people who have made travel and tourism a profound force for good, moving national economies, societies, identities and possibilities forward like no other sector could. 

But just like the new year will bring new opportunities for the tourism industry and the communities it impacts, it will also create a myriad of challenges. 

The good news? Those communities and organizations that start preparing now are the ones that will collect on their early investment in the decade to come.

Here’s a look at five things Resonance believes will define tourism in the year ahead.

The past several years have served as a stark reminder that tourism does not exist in a political vacuum.

1. POLITICS

Just two weeks into the new year and we’ve already learned that The White House is considering expanding its much-litigated travel ban to additional countries amid a renewed election-year play to anti-immigration. This new development is sure to reignite concerns and conversations about the policy’s impacts on the U.S. tourism economy.

The past several years have served as a stark reminder that tourism does not exist in a political vacuum. Hong Kong’s tourism economy, which relies heavily on visitors from mainland China, has been devastated by anti-government protests. For the last six months of 2019, visitor numbers fell by 39% against the same period a year before. Overall, arrivals were off by 14% for the entire year, demonstrating the dramatic effects of the political turmoil. 

Meanwhile China is increasingly wielding tourism as a political weapon, either in the form of travel bans, travel warnings, or even political announcements in the state media, which can turn off the flow of Chinese visitors to a targeted destination. The most recent examples include suspending a program that allows individual tourists to travel to Taiwan, or cautioning citizens, including students, against travel to or studying in the U.S.

And there is still uncertainty over what Brexit will mean for the U.K. travel economy. In the first six months of 2019, international arrivals to the UK have fallen by 1%, while spending fell by 2%. This is on the back of 2018, which saw significant declines as well. A report from Oxford Economics found that a “no-deal” Brexit would cause a 5% drop in U.K. outbound trips in 2020, because of the stifled economic backdrop and impact of a weaker pound.  

When it comes to politicians and public officials, the full benefits of tourism are generally underappreciated, and therefore the impacts that policies and rhetoric can have on tourism are often overlooked. While our industry is working hard to fight this, the reality is that we can expect to be caught in more political crosshairs in the year to come. 

Travelers are becoming more conscious of their impacts—environmentally, socially and economically.

2. RESPONSIBLE TOURISM AND DESTINATION STEWARDSHIP

Some are calling it the “Greta Effect.” Last year Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, made headlines after making the trip across the Atlantic to attend a United Nations climate summit via catamaran, outfitted with solar panels and hydro-generators to minimize her carbon footprint. Around the same time, the flygskam (shame to fly, in Swedish) movement was taking off, encouraging travelers to stop taking flights in an effort to lower carbon emissions.

In Europe, this movement is beginning to have a real impact. Passenger numbers are steadily dropping on domestic and short-haul routes within the continent. In France, some lawmakers have proposed a ban on most internal flights. Even airlines such as KLM are now encouraging passengers to use trains on shorter journeys to reduce the environmental impact from flying. Meanwhile, in the United States, JetBlue announced that it will offset the carbon dioxide emissions for all of its domestic flights beginning this July. The move will make it the first major U.S. airline to be totally carbon neutral for all domestic air travel.

The environmental thinking was already there, but the Greta effect made it appear even more important.
Pascale Marcotte, professor, Laval University in Quebec City

Responsible travel is not a new trend, however it is building momentum. “The environmental thinking was already there, but the Greta effect made it appear even more important,” according to Pascale Marcotte, a professor at Laval University in Quebec City. The reality is that travelers are becoming more conscious of their impacts—environmentally, socially and economically. Almost three quarters (74%) of travelers believe that people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to save the planet for future generations, according to Booking.com.

At the same time, the tourism industry is also advancing its efforts to promote and develop responsible tourism. Today, a growing number of destination leaders are advocating for a stronger role in “destination stewardship,” which speaks to the industry embracing a more comprehensive definition of sustainability and collectively addressing the long-term economic, social and environmental viability of a destination. 

Indeed, Resonance had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion on sustainability at the U.S. Travel Association’s fall board meeting. Attendees were asked to help prioritize the sustainability issues that required the most immediate attention by the industry. Destination Stewardship was selected as the top issue. 

Visit California is one of the first and largest DMOs to develop a Destination Stewardship Plan. In developing it, the organization acknowledges, “At this moment in time, our mission must include stewardship. Our industry’s long-term viability depends on its ability to protect, preserve and promote the traveler experience.”

What has become clear is that destination stewardship is today a necessity to remain competitive in this new environment. A report from the parliamentary commissioner for the environment in New Zealand examined the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism and what ongoing business-as-usual growth could mean for the environment and the vulnerability of the tourism sector. What is interesting, and somewhat alarming, are the questions the report raises around tactics currently being deployed by the industry, including a “value” over “volume” approach, dispersal of visitors and visitor management.

“Second citIes” like Richmond, Virginia, are planning for growth as talent and tourists move in.

3. DESTINATION DIVERSIFICATION

The new year will also see an increase in destination diversification among travelers, or what some have called “second-city travel,” meaning the exploration of lesser-known destinations in a bid to reduce over-tourism and protect the environment. Over half (54%) of global travelers want to play a part in reducing overtourism, while 51% would swap their original destination for a lesser-known but similar alternative if they knew it would have less of an environmental impact, according to Booking.com. 

Meanwhile, travelers are putting key aspects of their destination decision-making process more firmly in the hands of technology. Almost six in 10 travelers (59%) say they want tech to offer them ‘wild card’ and surprise options that would introduce them to something entirely new in the coming year.

The risk is that in today’s digital media climate, these so-called “second cities” can quickly become overrun with visitors themselves. Such was the case for Lake Elsinore, California. Last year, the city of roughly 63,000 people was invaded by visitors during a poppy “super bloom”. With more than 50,000 visitors a day coming to enjoy the spectacular wildflower experience, the city was unable to manage basic services and eventually shut down the canyon. 

Because of this, “second-city” destinations are beginning to plan for growth in a more strategic manner. Such is the case with Richmond, Virginia, which last year engaged Resonance in the development of a 10-year Tourism Master Plan. Richmond is a destination poised for growth. The city was listed on the New York Times list of 52 Places To Go In 2020 and by 2030 the Richmond region is expected to welcome more than 9 million visitors. In anticipation of this growth, Richmond Region Tourism developed a Tourism Master Plan in an effort to be thoughtful about how the quality of the visitor experience can be balanced with the quality of life for residents; about the kinds of visitors who would most appreciate the region’s character, its people and its offering; and how the region can responsibly grow its tourism industry for the benefit of all in the community.

As travelers’ desire to seek out and experience new destinations increases, it will be critical for these places to plan ahead and avoid the pitfalls experienced by places such as Venice, Barcelona and others.

GIS-driven tourism master plans that track tourism impact will be increasingly essential to cities.

4. SMARTER DESTINATIONS

In 2019, 5G began its roll out across the world—with the first networks going online and the first 5G-enabled phones hitting the shelves. In 2020, 5G is going mainstream. AT&T and Verizon say they expect their 5G networks to be accessible nationwide this year. In addition, the carriers say at least 15 smartphones will be 5G-compatible this year, more than triple the number last year.

The reality is that 5G won’t dramatically change the way people travel in 2020. But the infrastructure and networks built over the next year will change the way destinations are able to understand and manage the visitor experience. “2020 is pivotal because you’ve got a good foundation built, and the ecosystem starts to form,” says Kevin Petersen, a marketing executive for AT&T. One important benefit of the new technology is its ability to greatly reduce latency, or the time it takes for devices to communicate with one another. That will be important as we build smarter and more connected cities. 

This new data will allow DMMOs (destination marketing and management organizations) to better understand the visitor experience and manage tourism in the destination more effectively. Amsterdam, for example, is already experimenting with displaying wait times at top visitor attractions on its website. The city has also created an app that sends push notifications to users warning them of long queues and suggesting alternatives. Visitors can even download an artificial intelligence–powered service that suggests off-the-beaten-path destinations based on their social-media profiles. On a pre-emptive basis, Amsterdam is developing dashboards to forecast overcrowding in specific locations. The traffic department and other agencies are exploring how to track people through movement detection cameras and mobile-phone data. Combined with data analytics, this information can help the city optimize maintenance and cleaning schedules and determine infrastructure needs.

Advanced data will also help destinations in their planning efforts. As tourism continues to grow at rates well above many other global industrial sectors worldwide, GIS-driven tourism master plans that track the social, environmental and economic impacts of tourism will be increasingly essential to cities and regions experiencing rapidly growing tourism demands on local resources.

People are increasingly traveling with a greater purpose and focus on giving back to the communities they visit.

5. PURPOSE-DRIVEN TRAVEL

Transformational travel was all the rage in 2019. The Transformational Travel Council, founded in 2016, defines transformational travel as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.” The simple reality is that all travel is transformational. It’s the “intentional” aspect that is shifting traveler decision making and behavior.

Over half (56%) of global travelers agree traveling has taught them invaluable life skills, and 2020 will see a rise in people’s desire to learn something new while away, as well as an increase in volunteering and skills-based vacations across generations. When looking at the most popular kinds of trips with purpose, 68% of global travelers would consider participating in cultural exchanges to learn a new skill, followed by a volunteering trip (54%) and international work placements (52%), according to Booking.com. 

The desire to learn and grow into new ways means destinations have to rethink their experiential offer. It also opens up new opportunities to connect tourism with talent attraction and economic development through creative tourism. These creative experiences bring members of the global creative class and knowledge economy to growth districts and cities, creating the opportunity for visitors to meet and build relationships with those involved in their professional fields in a more organic way.

Travelers are looking for assistance in making their trips more purposeful. According to Booking.com, more than 60% of global travelers would like to have access to a service (app/website) that recommends destinations where an increase in tourism would have a positive impact on the local community. JourneyKind is an example of such a service. The agency curates travel services: hotels, restaurants and local activities, and prioritizes options that create a positive social, economic or environmental impact.

2020 will also raise questions about tourism’s role in disaster recovery. Last year we saw dozens of destinations affected by tragedies, with the DMMOs helping to communicate when it’s acceptable for travelers to return and presenting the message that “your dollars are needed.” Some have questioned the long-term viability of these strategies. With the wildfires currently devastating Australia, we’ve already seen calls for “volunteer tourists” to come and assist with the relief efforts. This type of “voluntourism” can become extremely complicated however, and must be managed in a way that adds value to the destination, rather than hampering recovery efforts. 

What do you think are the trends that will define tourism in the coming year? I’d love to hear from you.