Friday, August 21, 2015

10 Ways Tourism can Earn the Respect it Deserves

At least since at least the 1960s and including my now-concluded four-decade career, many in travel and tourism have repeatedly whined that this sector of the economy doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Some are individual businesses who just want a pat on the back.  Others feel they need special treatment or shouldn’t have to pay their fair share of making places visitor-worthy.

It can be annoying and proposals rarely seem to go much beyond chest thumping.  Later in this essay I’ll take a stab at some more systemic ideas for how the travel and tourism sector could earn more respect.

But primarily, complainants are referring to the fact that most elected officials and administrators don’t grasp that the function of visitor centric economic and cultural development is to drive tax revenue.

Focus in government is typically only about dividing up the pie with the mistaken view that generating it comes only from a political decision to levy taxes.

The validity of the tourism sector’s concern is often visible when elected officials, often pushed by developers and advocates, are all too eager to drain resources shouldered for that purpose away from tourism promotion for their own uses instead.

These folks are better known as TINOs or “tourism in name only” and identifiable by their siren song of “build it and they will come.”

It is true that worldwide the travel and tourism sector now generates nearly 10% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) including 1 in every 11 jobs.  It is projected by economists that this sector alone will generate 3% of the GDP in America this year.

That’s bigger than the automotive sector, to add perspective, or for that matter agriculture, education and mining too.

Even down to the county-level, visitor-centric economic development generates a similar percentage of GDP in places where it is actively promoted, such as Durham, North Carolina where I live.

Instead of incessantly complaining that officials just don’t get it or care, here are 10 simple behaviors professionals in the travel and tourism sector could adopt to earn the respect it deserves:

Deep Six the widespread misuse of the term “industry.”  Tourism has never been an industry.  It is an economic sector composed by as many as seven very different industries that happen to rely in part or in whole on a common consumer, visitorsRemember: industry is small, sector is many industries together.

Distinguish demand-driven visitor centric economic and cultural development from more traditional forms of supply-based economic development.  Tourism is on the demand side and truly generates value-added to a community.

Adopt an all for one and one for all approach.  Too often tourism tolerates actions and positions that throw one industry under the bus while protecting those that don’t want to pay their fair share.

Grasp that respect isn’t won or demanded, it is earned, not from tooting your own horn or chest thumping but by patiently and continually explaining how the economy and tax generation works and how travel and tourism is a means for community destination and cultural development

Stop killing the things visitors love.  Avoid cookie-cutter architecture that only homogenizes communities and adopt zero tolerance for use of tools such as long-obsolete roadside billboards that create sign blight (aka litter on a stick,) desecrate scenic vistas and mar sense of place.

Embrace design thinking beginning by performing a “Drano” operation on tourism organizations and models that having achieved their purpose have become obsolete given changes in the tourism ecosystem.  These only serve as a drain on resources and engagement.

Respect and encourage preservation of the unique sense of place in each destination beginning with place-based assets, traits and values.  Encourage communities to differentiate rather than become generic.  Protect them from being hollowed out by mainstream events and mega-facilities.

Root out intra-sector hypocrisy.  Remember that the tourism sector flourishes as a public-private sector partnership.  Discourage public subsidies of mega-events and facilities that will not generate a return on investment to the public treasury.  Refrain from win/lose issues such as forcing restriction of local school calendars.

Take a prominent lead in solutions to societal inequities such as business models based on paying less than a livable wage, vestiges of institutional intolerance and bias as well as gentrification that is insensitive or imbalancedEarn a reputation for win/win facilitator.

Encourage widespread adoption of best practices.  Demand that destination marketing organizations earn accreditation.  Cross populate best practices across all industries in the sector including special assessments such as Tourism Improvement Districts or prepared food taxes dedicated to self-funding promotion, wayfinding, cultural landscape and destination clean up and beautification.

It is complicated to form one voice over an entire sector of multiple industries but it can be done and one of the first steps should be to develop a reliable metric.

It all begins by acting like a sector not just an industry.  It is possible only when the sector is as concerned with the overall ecosystem (including the pubic sector) as it is with individual bottom lines.

If these 10 areas are not of interest, just stop whining about respect.

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