Commentary: Goodbye Boracay, hello Tagaytay – less well-known places could be the future for domestic travel
COVID-19 has altered overseas travel behavior, triggering a need for a new paradigm of promoting tourism. This means market opportunities for tourism in smaller cities, says RSIS’ Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit.
SINGAPORE: The tourism trends during the COVID-19 pandemic are shifting. Take Baguio and Tagaytay as examples.
A recent Airbnb survey found that a majority of Filipino travellers wanted to visit these less known getaways than usual tourism hotspots such as Boracay. This finding aligns with changing tourism preferences happening elsewhere.
Popular Hawaiian getaways and California’s Napa County witnessed a 75 per cent and 50 per cent drop in their bookings respectively.
Another survey of more than 2,000 Americans by a financial firm revealed that the two-thirds of these travellers avoided large cities due to COVID-19 concerns.
What explains these trends? Obviously, the pandemic has altered tourists’ behaviour and produced new consumption patterns.
The ways people travel and the activities they will embark on during trips will look very different from the pre-COVID-19 era.
For one thing, many travellers are increasingly citizens from a country rather than international tourists.
People are also becoming more risk-averse. They tend to refrain from visiting to big cities, entering congested spaces, and participating in large group activities.
As a result, less traffic is heading towards famous travel spots, but more visitors are flocking to off-the-beaten places.
RETHINKING TOURISM: GOING PLACES IN SMALLER TOWNS
For policymakers, the trends trigger a rethinking of how to run the tourism industry in such new environment.
While reopening is a logical solution helping these economies recuperate from the pandemic-inflicted losses, it is not straightforward.
At this stage in the pandemic, reopening megacities for visitors such as Bangkok, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney will do little to boost tourism.
Future trends dictate that future hotspots will likely be a mix between old and new attractions. As Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky remarked, “San Francisco will back, New York will be back, but the playing field is now levelled.” In short, among the likely winners will be smaller towns which names have been less heard of.
Promoting tourism in smaller municipalities yield other benefits beyond generating direct tourism revenues. For one thing, doing so increases women’s participation in economies.
The 2019 World Tourism Organization Report found that 54 per cent of the tourism workforce were female as compared to 39 per cent in the broader economy, and women in this industry earned more than those in a broader economy. This hence lessens gender inequalities and supports inclusive growth.
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Such tourism offers opportunities to “test the market” for local goods such as specialised handicrafts and exotic herbs. Local entrepreneurs can identify products with potential for promotion in larger markets.
This type of travel also helps preserve cultural heritage of particular communities, such as sophisticated artifacts and tribal tea-brewing skills, which might have otherwise disappeared within a decade.
Tourism has proven to salvage these elements, ranging from sophisticated woodcarving skills of the Asmat – a tribal minority residing in Indonesia’s Papua province, to elaborated textiles and hats made by the Akha villagers living on mountains in Northern Thailand.
GOVERNMENTS ROLE IN SUSTAINING LOCAL TOURISM
Governments have a big role to play if such budding shoots of novel holiday experiences are to meet expectations.
Some already are breaking new ground in raising the skills and standards of local communities who house visitors and whose ways of life are often of interest to curious visitors and eco-tourists. In these, fresh inter-agency cooperation is helping to identify novel ways to work with locals and equip them with assistance.
Mae Kampong, a small village northeast of Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, successfully became a community-based tourist destination, thanks to cooperation between the Ministry of Tourism and Sport and the Ministry of Labour.
While the former helped the villagers achieved homestay certification standards, the latter trained homestay hosts to enhance their hospitality.
Standardisation may be key in delivering fresh travel opportunities that is competitive on price, service levels and quality. In this, public officials should create a tourism certification system guaranteeing that service providers meet certain quality and standards, raising consumer confidence.
Officers can, for example, leverage existing global frameworks offered by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), an international entity accrediting sustainable tourism.
The Costa Rica government in 1997 unveiled its Certification for Sustainable Tourism recognised by GSTC. This enabled the authorities to boost visitors in smaller towns such as La Fortuna.
As savvy travellers also look for information and places to stay online, governments should consider creating an online one-stop-service platform to link vacationers with service providers.
Because out-of-town travellers often have difficulty finding out what products and services local hosts offer, some governments have also found rolling out platforms to be helpful in matching businesses’ products to clients’ needs and demands while promoting off-the-beaten places.
Vietnamese authorities added a one-stop service portal in which tourists can browse through a list of lesser known destinations such as Ninh Binh and Mai Chau and learn about the products and services they offer.
Financial support has also been a lever in aiding cash-strapped local entrepreneurs to launch new businesses, who would otherwise be unable to participate in this tourism industry on their own.
Cangfang village in China’s Henan Province, once a poverty-stricken town, has since been transformed into one of the country’s hidden rural tourist gems.
The interest-free government loans and subsidies helped local families sustain their bed-and-breakfast for out-of-town sojourners, and a wildlife park was created amid the rugged mountains and lush bamboo forests.
COVID-19 reminds us that within every crisis lies great opportunities. During this unprecedented time, taking the road less travelled can be a wise move for governments looking to stir economies.
International tourist arrivals may be down across the world. But for small rural villages in China, the Philippines and most big countries, it may just be the start of a budding domestic tourism market.
Dr Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit is Deputy Head and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.