Innovating Tourism, for Fun, Savings and the Good of the Planet

treetopA while ago I saw a travelogue on bicycle tourism in the Alps. The tourist authorities realized the rigours of regular bicycling wasn’t for everyone, so they introduced some innovations:

  • Elevators inside the mountains for the major uphill sections, so your personally-powered travel is mostly downhill
  • Closely-located, unique inns and restaurants, all scheduled and booked to be waiting for you when you arrive, with local cuisine and ‘picnic baskets’ you can drop off at the next town
  • Vans that take your luggage on ahead, so it’s waiting there when you arrive each evening, allowing you can travel very light

The North American tourist industry is, by contrast, wasteful and archaic. Expressways, offramp gas stations, chain restaurants and chain hotels make every route and every destination look alike. You travel thousands of miles simply to get a warmer or cooler climate, a change of skyscraper- and billboard-obscured natural scenery, a slightly-different golf course or strip of crowded sand, or some contrived artificial ‘theme park’, casino or beach resort. The whole vacation industry seems designed to waste oil and water, terraform the natural environment, and make faraway places look just like ‘home’. Meanwhile, the heavily-subsidized airlines are full but still going bankrupt, turning the clouds brown, and thanks to ‘security’ making flying more trouble than it’s worth. Trains are overpriced, disconnected and limited. Most public transport is unreliable, decrepit and unsafe.

Even eco-tourism is a challenge. It’s mostly priced for those with neither the time nor the sensibility to appreciate it, and can be more like a Survivor experience than a learning one — and in some cases it is, ironically, terrible for the environment.

So what could we do about it? Apply four rules:

  1. Slow down.
  2. Stay closer to home.
  3. Put more things to do and see closer together.
  4. Design, ‘string together’ and organize (technologically) simpler, less expensive entertainments.

We could learn from the Alps bicycle tours. It would require some substantial changes to the tourist ‘industry’ infrastructure, but these changes would be good for local employment, good for the economy, and good for the environment. And by using our imagination and innovation, and letting nature do more of the ‘entertaining’, we could still deliver the adrenaline rushes some world-weary, desensitized travelers demand without bulldozing acres for malls, roller-coasters and parking lots. We might even make travellers more physically fit instead of candidates for embolisms and heart attacks.

This would require, however, some (gasp!) government and peer-to-peer collaboration. If you want to create an enjoyable and memorable experience for the tourist, you need to think about the entire experience, and that means not leaving it up to individual vendors, who are, today, each trying to get the maximum amount of money out of tourists who will probably never return anyway, with the minimum possible expenditure — a commercial example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

This would require more than just coordination, what most tourist ‘boards’ do to day. Co-marketing, scheduled ‘festivals’ and sharing news about what each establishment in an area is doing is not enough. Collaboration means developing a coherent, sustained experience for the tourist with no ‘gaps’. It also means innovating new experiences that draw on the natural environment, existing infrastructure and the imagination of the collaborators.

Even today’s package ‘tours’ don’t go far enough to creating an integrated experience, because each vendor cares only about their disjointed part of the tour, so there is little or no cohesion between the parts, some of the parts can be exploitative (some operators treat their package tour customers almost like hostages), and the travel between the parts is usually treated as a no-frills, no-profit nuisance, to be outsourced or left to the individual, and handled as inexpensively as possibly.

And collaboratively creating an integrated experience for tourists doesn’t mean organizing every second of their day, either. It means looking after the details, the logistics of the journey so the tourist doesn’t have to, but still leaving the tourist with freedom to do their own thing, and accommodating changes in their itinerary on a moment’s notice when the tourist decides to spend more, or less, time on a particular part of the tour. So, the Alps bicycle tours provide checkpoints and cellphones that you can use to help the tour organizers coordinate and accommodate changes to your plans, so you don’t have to worry about them.

Collaboration means that each collaborator needs to have a vested interest in the entire experience, so they care about more than just their small part. Think of this as analogous to the training of people on an assembly line to be able to handle tasks upstream and downstream of their own, both to enrich their personal competencies and to instill a sense of care for what happens elsewhere on the line. So if you’re a hotel or restaurant in a tour, you should learn how to offer any other part of the tour experience, to appreciate how your establishment contributes to that cohesive experience, and you should cost-share and profit-share with every other part of the experience as well.

The greatest benefit of such collaboration, however, is the innovation that collective energy can produce, adding imaginative benefits and experiences that an un-integrated tour ‘packager” would never think of. Some of these innovations could cost next to nothing but add immensely to the tourist’s enjoyment. Others (like the elevators in mountains) might add considerable cost that no one establishment could probably afford, but which spread among all the collaborators could be manageable and open up the market to a whole, huge group (like those who like the outdoors but aren’t fit enough to pedal up mountains) who otherwise would be unlikely to patronize any of the establishments.

Here are just a few possible ideas for what such collaborative groups might do, off the top of my head; I’m sure groups of people in the industry, who know their customers (and potential customers) much better than I do, working together, could come up with much better.

  • Open Source tour itinerary development: Establish networks of local citizens and local enterprises to brainstorm and co-develop new, imaginative, integrated experiences for local tourists. They might come up with ideas like sophisticated real-time, real-space local ‘murder mysteries’ to solve, or scavenger hunts, or even ‘car rallies’ on foot or by bicycle that tax your powers of observation and knowledge of local history and geography rather than your muscles.
  • Seven day “safe and easy” countryside walking and biking tours: Design seven interesting local hikes that can be managed by all ages in a day, and then ‘string them together’ by providing transport between them each evening, dinner and evening social venues, transport to/from local bed-and-breakfasts (or home, for those who can’t afford to pay for overnight stay). Each one could start on a Saturday morning and end on a Friday night, and some of the hikes might even include nature or tour guides.
  • Podcast-directed local travel-and-study programs: Spend a week learning about nature, architecture, art, sculpture, a craft, music, photography, cooking, small business, or farming, with the entire program on podcast. It would guide you around the local community, and coordinate hands-on learning with local biologists, artists, chefs, entrepreneurs or farmers at various points in the week’s study.
  • Serial impromptu Meetup vacations: Instead of going elsewhere on vacation, Meetup with people who are in your area for a vacation, show them around and enjoy the local attractions with them. This could be as simple as pre-scheduled evening Meetups where locals and visitors can meet each other and talk about local attractions and events (and see how the locals really live), or something more sophisticated where locals could actually make a living entertaining out-of-town tourists personally and inexpensively (using the Internet to share best ideas with others, to rate “hosts” after each trip, and to coordinate larger-group activities).
  • Local ballooning trips: See your local area from a bird’s-eye view, not just for a single two-hour trip but for a whole vacation.
  • Self-organized local theatre festival: Network with other locals to identify local theatre productions, shows, day-trips, street festivals and other activities and then coordinate and string together organized tours that go to all of these events, either in a week-long festival, or a regular once-a-week or once-a-month basis.

Who knows, there might even be some opportunities here for innovators to create Natural Enterprises that facilitate collaboration among establishments in their area who are currently disconnected, uninnovative, and even working competitively at cross purposes, and in the process create local tourist industry booms drawing on people right in the community. And in the process, we could save a lot of oil, save a lot of money on travel, and help the local economy and the environment.

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1 Response to Innovating Tourism, for Fun, Savings and the Good of the Planet

  1. Communities in the Swiss Alps are increasingly trying to build summer tourism around biking (& walking) since all their winter infrastructure is under-used during the hot and snow-less months. So you go up with the mechanical infrastructure and down with the weight of your body and your bike…Cheers from a Swiss mountain-lover living in CHiang Mai, Thailand,Alex

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