It’s not that I love grandiose blog post titles, it’s just that I’ve had this massive concept in my head and getting it out feels like how I imagine it must feel to pass a kidney stone the size of a golf ball.
It is this thought: even as the tourism industry generates billions and trillions of dollars each year, it is evolving and heading down a path that will leave itself flapping in the wind, underutilized, and vestigial in the future.
Interested? Follow me.
A Hill of Beans
The economy has weighed heavily on the minds of most people over the last several years. When I hear “economy,” first I shudder (macro economics threatened to maim my college GPA) and then I think of dollars and cents. But there’s another currency of economy that many businesses deal in: the Experience Economy. You might recall my old post on experiential travel in which I cite a study by Pine and Gilmore. Well these same guys happened to write the book (literally) on the Experience Economy back in 1999.
The book was game-changing for business, and at its heart is a basic understanding of commodities, products, services, and experiences. The authors use coffee as an example to illustrate the differences: plain old coffee beans are a commodity, ground coffee in the grocery store is a product, simple drip coffee at the diner is a service, and fancy coffee drinks in the pleasant ambiance of a coffee shop is an experience. Over time, the influence of technology, competition, and increasing expectations of consumers can reduce products and services to commodities. The authors’ thesis is that we are living in the experience economy today, where businesses charge for the feeling that experiences provide and treat the other categories as commodities to be given away as facilitators for those experiences.
Still with me?
As Tourism Ages
As the experience economy matures, consumers drift away from manufactured “product” experiences toward authentic experiences. Sure, you can have that cup of coffee at Starbucks, or you could have it on a coffee plantation in Nicaragua. Travel is inherently experiential, but even the tourism industry is wrapped up in this theory and is shifting toward so-called “authentic tourism.” I can barely count the number of press releases I’ve read from national tourism boards stating their new strategic focus on cultural tourism/experiential travel/ecotourism/etc. Now I’ve ruminated extensively on the confounding search for authentic travel experiences, and there’s something very ironic about selling “authentic travel packages.” The mere thought creates a great void inside me. If there’s no feeling then it’s merely a product, something I’m drifting away from as a traveler, is it not?
As I touched on in a recent post about travel and materialism, the tourism industry is just a different form of consumption. A provocative article on Samoan branding shared by Andy of 501places characterized travel as ruled by the same commoditizing and homogenizing forces that drive increased consumption in other industries. The markers of Western civilization are visible around the globe, from Tibetan kids wearing Nike shirts to McDonald’s restaurants in the South Pacific to Leonardo DiCaprio movie posters in Sofia. I’m not judging this expansion of culture, rather pointing it out as the vanguard of an onrushing monoculture.
The idea that a single culture could take over the world terrifies me. I value the feeling of foreignness I experience when traveling. It always casts new light on old ways of thinking and makes me adapt to new situations. Tourism has long provided an infrastructure to make travel easier, but the signs of this infrastructure violate the foreign experiences we seek. Today, our ability to travel easily and relatively cheaply means we need less hand-holding and facilitation from tourism at large. So often I think about getting to places off the beaten path, “discovering” something serendipitously, and it feels like the complete opposite of tourism and “authentic travel packages.” One idea is that tourism has gradually moved from service to experience to product, a dangerous progression for an industry built around experiences.
There will always be a need for some tourism infrastructure, don’t get me wrong. Many people want to travel without feeling like an alien. But what will the tourism industry do when the majority of people simply want an authentic experience, one that requires little third-party infrastructure or conjuration? In the process of ratcheting up my desire to travel, the signs of tourism, like a sea of billboards along the road, have robbed me of that sought-after feeling of cultural displacement. And it’s driving me away. I don’t need it as a service or a product, and lord knows the experience is less than satisfying.
Finally, why am I and so many others so desperate to “acquire” feelings through travel? Only those damned to live in a world with pre-packaged “authentic experiences” would ask such a question.
Where do you think the tourism industry fits in this day and age? Are you conflicted like me?
Listening to: David Gray and Stars of the Lid