Ever notice how change happens slowly then all at once? Some might relate to a road you have been driving for years, then suddenly you notice the traffic. Change happens like that. That same subtle but real transition is happening now with tourism destinations. Historically we think of destinations from a life cycle perspective. One of the most notable destination lifecycle models is Butler's Tourist Area Life Cycle seen below.
We often think of destination change from a tourism perspective but rarely through a resident lens. Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) and their advertising agencies make great efforts to refine a destination's positioning and change it when needed with the goal of attracting visitors.
But new realities are shaping a different kind of change that is causing smart destinations to look forward not through a visitor lens but a community lens. We're seeing a subtle but profound transition of tourism destinations whose policies and resources are focused on visitors to community destinations where those policies and resources are concentrated on residents.
For decades, tourism destinations have approved, built, and invested capital in infrastructure projects primarily with an eye towards what's good for tourism: a parking structure, shopping areas, new condos, housing developments, etc. All of which at the time seemed prudent. The pushback by residents is new and suggests we may be seeing a shift from tourism destinations whose primary focus was tourism to something different: community destinations, a place where tourism exists as a part of the community but does not define it.
The subtle and essential shift asks some fundamental questions; do residents event want tourism? And if they do, what benefits do they want? Simply saying tourism generates revenues, taxes, and employment is no longer enough. The benefits have often not trickled down proportionately to residents, and in many destinations, locals are pushing back and have the political wherewithal to do it. Looking at tourism through a community lens prioritizes tourism and decisions in the destinations within a framework of what's good for residents. This is a fundamental shift from tourism destinations of the past.
For years, residents tolerated visitors and their impacts because it was good for the local economy. But the pandemic changed that. COVID surfaced issues that had been there all along but had not been addressed. As major urban destinations shut down, interest in visiting and buying residents in outdoor recreation-based destinations increased dramatically, making housing out of reach for residents. Additionally, some visitors negatively impacted the local communities; trash, parking, and rude behavior to the point where vocal residents have become fed up. For many residents, the social contract, an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, had been broken.
In this shift to being a community destination, residents recognize the real power at the municipal level to shape tourism policies. That power impacts city and town councils and county supervisors to implement programs that either deliver greater benefits or reduce the impacts to the community. Even the tourism industry has responded by focusing more on residents, including highlighting the community programs, personalities, and activities that residents are doing that make the destination unique. DMOs will have to make a subtle but important shift to understanding and creating narratives aligned with the values and perspectives of residents.
What does it mean? Over time resident influence on tourism will continue to grow, and politicians listen to residents. Recently Durango and Vail issued destination management programs requests for proposals that bypassed their local destination marketing organizations, illustrating a shift that had not been before. Residents will continue to shape policy and investment to focus on local needs first and, in the process, shift tourism destinations to community destinations. This shift is new, and getting it right will take time. Long-term destination change is happening—it's happening all at once.
About The Insights Collective
The Insights Collective is a not-for-profit collaboration of destination travel industry experts working together with mountain resort community stakeholders to understand, plan, and navigate the pandemic-influenced economy and its many unintended consequences