World Travel and Tourism Council data revealed a vertiginous 49.1% plummet in the 2020 global GDP contribution of the global travel & tourism sector, which had previously churned out one in every four new jobs between 2014 and 2019. How can this trend be reversed? The meeting of ministers at the G20 last May, chaired by Italian Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), focused on seven areas of intervention: Safe Mobility, Crisis Management, Resilience, Inclusion, Green Transformation, Digital Transition, Investment and Infrastructure.
To put it bluntly, in addition to the health green pass, this sector, which in Italy alone accounts for 6% of the GDP in normal times (13% including allied industries), is now being called upon to usher in a radical paradigm shift. However, perhaps this is not enough. Because, as Greg Richards, professor at the Universities of Breda and Tillburg, and world guru of creative and transformational tourism, explains, updating business models is simply not enough, we need to realise that tourists today are no longer “what they used to be”.
with most tourist experiences is that they tended to be rather passive, superficial and individualised. We used to wander around the city centres taking pictures or head to the beach for some sun. That’s all. Tourists, at least most of them, simply tended to be very predictable”. The result? “Everyone almost always headed for the usual places, creating crowds at a number of predictable times of the day”.
The problem with most tourist experiences is that they tended to be rather passive, superficial and individualised.
Such a dynamic, Richards points out, is no longer possible. This is why tourism is not a sector that needs to be recovered or made more resilient; on the contrary, it is a sector that needs to build new foundations. “The mainstream industry is basically wondering: when will tourism revert to pre-COVID levels?”. That’s the wrong question. Instead, the question should be: “If the pandemic was a transformational experience”, Richards reasons, “we cannot assume that it was not also a transformational experience for the object of our observation. In other words, tourists”.
So how has tourists’ perspectives changed? In a nutshell: people no longer travel to see places or meet people, but to have transformational experiences. In other words, tourists ‘expect’ to be ‘changed’ by the journey. “This is the challenge we now face”, says Richards.
People no longer travel to see places or meet people, but to have transformational experiences.
So how do we organise transformation through tourism? Therein lies the crux of the matter: “We need to shift from passive models of watching and consuming, to active involvement and creative participation in daily life in the communities that host tourists”. How?
Step one: “Tourists should be taken to their destinations before their arrival. Only in this way can they understand how the culture and modus vivendi of the locals can connect to their lives.
Step two: “on arrival tourists should be ‘initiated’ into the genius loci: they have to be immersed in the lifestyle of the inhabitants, they have to get close to their scale of values in order to touch the points of convergence and distance. This involvement can be extended through various creative and relational experiences: not only eat the food, but learn how to eat it and see how it is produced, presented and consumed”. Then they can return home. And yet the tourist experience is not over.
Step three: “relationships that have been built up over those few days must be nurtured, the new tourist will ask: how are the friends I met there? What does that place look like in autumn or at Christmas? Can I deepen my experience next year? Such questions should be answered”.
According to Richards, an exemplary case of how the resources of places can generate creative experiences is provided by the Face to Face project: Meet an Ancient Cypriot project in Cyprus. Here, archaeologists are relating ‘osteobiographies’ from real bones found at ancient sites and, by turning them into life stories, engaging the visitor with the stories of the local community. Archaeological artefacts become the basis for creative tourism experiences, such as drinking wine and eating food as it was prepared in antiquity or learning how to make the pottery on which dishes are served. “These experiences not only engage visitors, but offer the possibility of transformations in their relationships with local people, local culture and local landscapes, and above all transform the tourist who returns home different from how he or she left, but ready to experience new travel and life experiences”, Richards says.