Why cities need to rethink their marketing to tourists

Dubrovnik, Croatia, has begun limiting the number of tourists in its historic centre. Roman Babakin

August is a month when Venice is so stuffed with tourists that the city’s head of tourism has said “it’s like war.”  In Dubrovnik’s walled historic centre, the city is using cameras to monitor and limit the crush of visitors. And Barcelona is pushing back on tourism by banning new hotels, hostels and tourist apartments in the city centre.

These headlines have put tourism in the news in a negative light. But “over-tourism” is only one of many trends playing out in cities today when it comes to handling visitors. Social media, the sharing economy, and changing tastes are all impacting city tourism in profound ways.

To make sense of these trends, I caught up with Peter Jordan, the head of insights with Toposophy, a destination marketing agency based in London and Athens. Recently, his group produced a manifest on how tourism is changing and how the city agencies that handle tourism need to change with it. The paper was produced with European Cities Marketing, an association of tourist boards and city marketing organizations, which in Europe tend to be an arm of city government.

A key argument in the manifest is that these organizations must change their focus from attracting tourists to attracting talent — visitors, skilled workers, investors and businesspersons. The idea is that marketing a city today means improving the experience of being in a city for everyone — not just tourists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: Residents of some European cities are complaining of having too many tourists, that visitors are ruining the city for the locals. What’s going on?

Peter Jordan: When we look at “over-tourism” or overcrowding, generally it intensifies all of the preexisting problems a city has. Look at traffic and the frustration of the local people, provision of of infrastructure and energy. Especially when you’ve got seasonal peaks in visitation, it just tends to exacerbate whatever situation was already there.

Peter Jordan, head of insights at the
destination marketing agency Toposophy

These are all very complex problems, because in order to tackle them you’ve got to get the agreement of local people who are already often quite frustrated. You’ve got to get businesses on board. You’ve got to think of alternatives. You’ve got to try and encourage people to still visit, but to visit elsewhere in the city or even other villages and towns nearby. But are they ready to cope with that?

You’ve also got the big players in your city who depend on tourism — the big hotels, for example, who may not be very happy if you publicly start pushing people elsewhere.  

Cities have to start shifting their focus from the marketing, which is what they’re used to doing, toward management.

Q: How much of the tourist surge is driven by rising incomes in developing countries?

A: If we look at the inbound visitor forecasts for Europe from markets like Brazil, China and India, we are only at the tip of the iceberg at the moment. There is a lot more to come. If cities are already overflowing, then they’ve got a big problem on their hands.

Despite all of the disturbances we’ve had in Europe over the last few years, from terrorism attacks and that kind of thing, visitation still continues to rise. Tourism is very resilient. People are spending more of their leisure time traveling instead of buying stuff.

Q: Some coastal cities seem to be pointing at cruise ships as the villain, because passengers hop off the ship for three hours and they clog the streets but don’t actually spend that much in the city. Is that a problem?

A: There are some cities that are suffering from an image problem because of this. It’s a complex problem — it’s not as easy as the council suddenly saying, all right, no more cruise ships. When you think of group travel in itself, even if it’s just a bunch of people coming on buses, the group mentality is they all want to stick together. Often it’s not in the tour company’s interest to let them go off and disappear and do their own thing.            

Tourist behaviour is a challenge, especially among those who are not used to traveling.  Sometimes tourists can do really awful scandalous things, which are very disrespectful because they get drunk and go crazy. Other times it’s just simple things like sitting down on the steps of a cathedral when they’re hot or want to stay in the shade. It’s all part of the over-tourism question. Tourist behaviour in itself is something that cities are trying to work out how to deal with.

You’ve got to start by measuring the problem and working out where the worst crowding is. Finding out from your local citizens what are the things that really, really irritate them, because there’s lots of different things that can go wrong. Talking to local businesses and finding out from them what they think the solution is. The first step really is to start a conversation in the city about it.

Q: How are “sharing economy” innovations like Airbnb impacting tourism in cities?

A: Tourists are starting to appear in districts of cities where they never used to. Of course, on the whole, that’s what consumers want. We’re all more interested in localism — living like locals, understanding the local way of life, eating local food, staying with local people. Of course, it’s also providing money to local people.

Are the cities prepared in those districts? Hotels tend to be clustered in a historic centre. But now cities have to plan with the idea that tourists are reaching much further beyond where they used to go. That’s also starting to change the nature of some of the businesses in those districts as well.

The biggest worry for residents is that it’s all pushing up the rental cost because landlords are taking property off of the long-term market and putting it on the short-term accommodation rental market.

Our argument there is telling cities to integrate the sharing economy. Apart from accommodation, there’s tours and there’s food, there’s transport, car rental, all that kind of thing. It’s now possible to visit a city without ever really using a traditional provider. You can do it all with local people.

It follows that if visitors are interested in the life of local people then it means that in everything you do in tourism you have to start with local people. You have to make sure they’re on board. You have to make sure they’re happy.

Q: If the tourists now want to live like locals, are the distinctions between how cities view these two groups blurring?

A: As a whole, the two worlds are starting to merge very quickly. It may be visitors are staying in an apartment and they’re staying in a suburb, so by definition, they’re going to be using the transport more or they’re going to be needing to get around a lot. They may also be spending a bit more time in a city because they really want to get to know it.

[See: Amsterdam to tourists: Get off the beaten path]

I have to be very careful about talking about all of this as a problem because tourism really has boosted the economy in so many ways. Of course, it often creates jobs at the lower end of the scale as well. It brings people into work, like women and young people, who might in some countries find it difficult to get jobs or run their own businesses.

At the same time, the question of who’s visiting and where they’re coming from is a very important one. Chinese travelers to Paris, they all want to go up the Eiffel Tower. We have to recognize that it’s going to happen. There’s no way you’re going to stop it. However, people coming back to Paris on their second or third visit, those are the kind of people who are more likely to be receptive to exploring more parts of the city and going elsewhere.

Q: You’ve said some of these trends mean cities need to shift from attracting visitors to attracting talent. Why do that, and how?

A: We’re asking city governments to widen their vision from just concentrating on leisure, inbound tourists. Because until now, tourism boards have been set up solely for that purpose.

Amsterdam’s a very good example because they went from being a tourism board to focusing on investors, on attracting business, on attracting students — and also visitors. Often, it’s visitors that are the people who maybe cause the biggest impact and who irritate local people more. Some city governments don’t realize that actually attracting businesses now are a fundamental part of what cities have to do.

Businesses are only going to come where there is a pool of talented people. Talented people generally prefer to live in nice places, safe places, places where they know that they can have a good time, where they can meet a partner, all these different things. Berlin’s become quite famous because it seems to have a lot of these factors. It’s attracted a very big startup community, a lot of talented young people. It’s brought a lot of life to the city where, of course, it wasn’t really before.

Of course, visitors also want to visit places which are vibrant, where there is a strong economy, where it’s safe. People are attracted by these same factors.

Q: What tactics can cities deploy here?

A: You need to widen your focus. You need to realize that your job is not just to attract tourists who may just spend one or two days, but also other groups of people like business travelers and students.

Often, of course, tourism is the catalyst. People come to visit. Then they say this is really quite a nice place to live. I could really see myself and my family here. Or why don’t we have our conference here. Conference tourism will bring people who never imagined coming, and then they may say, okay, let’s come back here sometime.

[See: How Ljubljana turned itself into Europe’s ‘green capital’]

Students is a group of people which city government never really thought it was their job to attract. It was just something left up to universities. Of course, we know that if students like their time in the city and they feel that they can be comfortable there, they may well stay and set up a business and work there.

Cities should also devote their marketing talent to working with universities, and marketing to more sectors beyond just leisure travel.

Q: It sounds like more than marketing. A lot of what you’re describing sounds like what many cities might call urban planning or workforce development.

A: Absolutely. It’s all connected. Again, it comes back to focusing on the product, focusing on what you have.

It means leaving your office and going out and talking to people a lot more. We talk heavily in the manifest about partnerships and bringing knowledge into your organization, knowledge of the business world, knowledge of data analysis, all the types of skills which they never had before that they need. And also, of course, partnerships to get money, to get investment from the business community, from universities and others.

Rather than saying tourism boards don’t really have a future, what we’re trying to do with the manifest is show them that they can actually gain confidence and that they do have a role. They need to be a lot more outward looking and look beyond the traditional tourism sector. Almost every city has some kind of marketing bureau or tourism bureau, but it’s almost helping them through this process of widening their focus, rather than just cutting it because you believe you have enough tourists already.

Q: We’re mostly talking about Europe, but do these lessons translate to cities in other parts of the world?

A: Yes, especially when you look at things like liveability and localism. These are things which happen across the world.

On the whole, there are very different philosophies depending on who’s managing and planning tourism. In some parts of the world, like Latin America and Asia, the government has a very strong role or it thinks it should have. The prevailing philosophy is that tourism is something that should be planned and handled by the government.

But increasingly, the people who really have the power are the booking platforms, and the sharing economy platforms, and the social media platforms. Those are the places where people get their inspiration, where they make their booking. It’s no longer coming from the official source.

Q: How are these platforms controlling the message?

A: If we think about how, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, how people were inspired to travel somewhere, where they collected their information and then where they made their booking, it was very much through official sources. People were inspired by seeing an advertisement, perhaps. Of course, that was something paid for by the government or tourism board.

Now, we look at our friend’s’ photos on social media and that’s what gives us the inspiration. We see our friends’ photos from Peru, for example, and say that looks like a really cool place to visit. 

When it comes to collecting information, we go on travel review sites like TripAdvisor and then make our judgment. Then when it comes to booking, of course, I used to work in a tourist information center in the UK and people used to come to us to make their hotel booking. But what we call the OTAs, the online travel agents, they are the big intermediaries and they really do rule the roost now. They’re not just enabling a booking, they are influencing where people end up booking. They all have city guides. For example, Facebook and Airbnb each produce their own city guides.

Q: You mentioned the terror attacks in Europe haven’t slowed tourism much. Are there strategies cities can use to keep reassuring potential visitors?

A: London, Manchester, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, all in the last year or so have all suffered terrorist attacks. We talk about the need to have a recovery coalition in place before anything happens. Especially in popular tourism destinations, cities need to be prepared for something to happen and they need to know what they’re going to do the day after in terms of communication, in terms of putting back together infrastructure.

In Brussels, for example, they started to look at their most loyal inbound markets, those that are closest to them, those that know the country best, those that are less likely to be put off by terrorism, and then they really start working on those again.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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