Every economic development strategy comes with tradeoffs. When it comes to tourism, cities must carefully navigate the risk of becoming so attractive to outsiders that they lose the distinctness that makes them special to locals. Global cities like Amsterdam and Venice are regularly wrestling with this tension, working hard to feel like home to locals while also welcoming to tourists.
Part of this struggle involves identifying, communicating and upholding the values that make a destination special. Every city has values that create a shared sense of identity and connectedness; that make a place feel like home for its locals. Those values may orbit around special historic or natural destinations, traditions or cultural practices. Without mindful planning, cities may find themselves overrun by well-meaning tourists who may not understand those values and, consequently, who undermine that sense of collective identity.
Navigating this challenge is difficult but not impossible. Many tourists want to contribute positively to the cities they visit. Many tourists want to support and contribute to the values that make these cities special. All that’s needed are opportunities for them to understand and demonstrate those values. With some creativity, planning and intentional communication strategies, cities can create these opportunities and in doing so, create meaningful opportunities for travelers to practice value-based tourism.
Here are five practical ways cities can create these kinds of opportunities.
Over the years, destinations with unique natural amenities such as Aspen, Iceland, Hawaii and New Zealand have implemented pledge strategies as a way to encourage visitors to pay special attention to the places they are visiting and the effects their actions may have on the natural environment. Tourists can opt-in in a variety of ways from signing an online form prior to their visit to receiving the city’s pledge stamped in their visitor’s passport. Such is the case in Palau where tourists read and sign a pledge written by local school children.
Image credit: National Geographic
Many of these pledges follow a similar theme or formula – asking tourists to treat the area with respect, leave nothing behind but their footprints, and to prioritize their own safety over social media. However, many locations also customize their pledge to include hazards unique to their area. For example, Hawaii’s Pono Pledge warns against tampering with their extensive lava fields. Visitors agree: “Molten lava will mesmerize me, but I will not disrupt its flow.”
While many pledges focus mostly on encouraging a certain quality of behavior, others go a step further and ask tourists to not only promise to apply their values when they visit but to also donate to protect the wildlife and upkeep of these locations. Pledge for the Wild is a community value initiative created by five mountain towns throughout the United States: Bend, OR, Bozeman, MT, Flagstaff, AZ, South Lake Tahoe, CA, and Steamboat Springs, CO. These programs encourage visitors to not only be a considerate visitor but to also donate funds to help with general upkeep.
While it may seem simple, these pledge programs provide visitors with a sobering reminder to respect the locations they are visiting with as much care and consideration as they would give their own home.
Some destinations have taken the concept of pledges one step further by creating in-depth, interactive educational content for visitors, allowing them to express their willingness to abide by certain values. These programs usually include some videos, articles and interactive questions that provide visitors with an understanding of what makes that city special and gives them a chance to express their support of certain values.
For example, in Banff, the Banff Mountain Institute encourages visitors to watch a handful of educational online videos prior to their trip. Once complete, they receive a certificate in their name which they can show upon arrival in exchange for a free city-branded water bottle. Similarly, the Invasive Species Initiative is a multi-country effort focused on educating visitors about invasive species through content that empowers tourists to prevent further damage to local ecosystems.
Creative programs like these are especially powerful for eco-conscious tourists, many of whom plan to engage mindfully with a destination and its unique qualities but who don’t have a way of expressing that intent. Providing a certificate or badge program is an excellent opportunity for them to trade their anxiety for a sense of pride and personal responsibility.
Image credit: Banff and Lake Louise Mountain Institute
Convincing travelers to agree to certain values ahead of time is one thing, keeping those values top of mind during their visit is another challenge. One way to tackle this challenge would be to partner with local businesses in tourist destinations. Have them creatively display community values with consistent branding in a highly visible way so that tourists who visit those shops are reminded of the values they’ve agreed to uphold. Cities could go one step further and encourage businesses to offer a discount to travelers who have completed certain educational programs or have them offer opportunities to donate towards efforts to preserve historic and/or natural sites around town.
Cities struggling with over-tourism might want to consider taking a page from Venice’s tourism playbook and try “detourism.” Through creative marketing, the “detourism” strategy involves intentionally steering tourists away from popular destinations to other parts of the city.
Venice’s initiative boasts a full digital magazine, newsletter, and social media account encouraging tourists to skip the typical sights of the city and experience Venice as authentically as a local would.
This approach caters to many travelers’ desire to see cities in a more authentic manner while decreasing demand for over-saturated destinations and making it possible for travelers to see those destinations at another time of year when demand has dropped off.
We applied similar strategies while working with the Town of Breckenridge, Colorado on their Open Space & Trails Master Plan to spread out demand among their highly popular trail system. Due to COVID and the increased preference for outdoor activities, many of the town’s trails and open spaces were facing increased congestion and overuse. This can be a big problem for delicate environmental areas and frustrating to locals when their favorite trail is over run by visitors who may not understand the appropriate trail ettiqette.
By utilizing wayfinding, implementing directional trails and communication with third party trail apps, we helped develop a strategy that will distribute users more evenly across the trail system, while also enhancing their experience by separating users (hikers vs downhill bikers) and separating advanced hikers and bikers from their more novice neighbors. We also helped the Breckenridge institute management zones to control overall trail density, parking demand and the volume of cars around neighborhood entry points.
Many cities’ tourist-focused initiatives focus primarily on bringing in new visitors. This is understandable from an economic perspective, but cities that over-focus on this group run the risk of ignoring a second group: would-be recurring visitors.
Because of their existing familiarity with the location, returning visitors often have a better sense of the city’s culture and values. The more often a tourist chooses to visit, the easier it is to integrate their behavior with those of the locals.
For example, city leaders in Barcelona discovered that French tourists made up the largest portion of their recurring visitor base. Once they began extended promotion towards those frequent visitors, they found French recurring visitors were more likely to visit during off-peak times, purchase local products, and explore lesser-known sections of the city, increasing the city’s sustainable tourism and creating a healthy connection between the visitors and Barcelona’s values.
By splitting your city’s efforts between attracting new visitors and maintaining a close relationship with existing and recurring tourists, you can create a more sustainable tourism ecosystem and extend the opportunity to turn visitors into honorary residents.
With the right tools and strategy, tourism doesn’t have to be a frightening threat to your city’s values. By creating and implementing educational programs and inspiring resources, your city can not only ensure your city’s tourists will be respectful visitors, but can also help transform them into loyal ambassadors for your destination.