Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

The Art of Predicting and the Farsighted Travel Writer

As travel journalists we are accustomed to doing a lot of second-guessing, which is another way of saying predicting. It’s also called staying ahead of the game; knowing which way the journalistic winds are blowing.

Hey, I can mix metaphors with the best of them.

Of necessity we are constantly obliged to assess and reassess how this industry works, and to figure out the complex synchronicity of content and context. What are the latest travel trends? What new and exciting destination is hot-to-trot? How can I get myself there and turn the experience into a Pulitzer Prize-winning story? (In the background you will hear Perry Como singing “Dream Along With Me.”)

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming; it can be a manifestation of vision. On the other hand, we do live most of our lives in a reality-based world, so more often than not we have to remind ourselves to get real. Above all, we have to remember that our perceptions of “where the world is at” in terms of travel and tourism can be highly influenced by our own North American (and perhaps ethnocentric) frame of reference.

Geoffrey Lipman is the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Recently he delivered the keynote speech at the UK Tourism Society’s Annual Meeting. At first glance, his speech “Emerging Tourism Markets ―The Coming Economic Boom” seemed somewhat contradictory. While there is much evidence that tourism in certain parts of the world is in pretty bad shape (see “The Impending Crisis in the Canadian Tourism Industry”), Lipman presents a global picture that is quite promising, and perhaps rather startling for travelers and travel journalists, especially in the long term.

As a key spokesperson for the UNWTO, Lipman focuses on three fundamental issues. First of all he points to important statistical information. His stats indicate a very significant “imminent” growth rate in global travel and tourism; 1.6 billion people will be travelling internationally by 2020. Now thinking ahead 16 years may seem a bit of a stretch, but that growth process is already well underway and the 2020 number represents twice the number of globe-trotting travellers there were out and about in 2007. The essential message here is that when there are that many “travel consumers” rushing hither and yon on the planet, they will need all the usual services ― especially information. Well, who are the principal information providers? The folks in the PR field of course. But who are the handmaidens to those who wish to attract and maintain their market share of this worldwide industry? How about travel journalists?

Lipman’s second issue is that of geopolitics and what he calls “the emergence of quadruple bottom line sustainability.” I will admit to having some difficulty in following his thought process here, however what I think he is suggesting is that sustainability is a far more complex economic phenomenon than we think, and a key element is climate change. He points out for example, that tourism is now seen by the powers that be in nations around the world (especially emerging and often “poor” nations) as “the best foreign direct investment system ever invented.” This means that national governments now realize that their tourism products are essentially “export” products that bring much needed revenue (i.e. visitors) into the country and consequently those tourism revenues are the principal agent of social development in the “host” country. But it’s all about context, new global realities, and adapting to change.

It’s a two-sided equation (as all equations are) because although emerging nations represent new and innovative travel experiences, they also represent new target markets for our homegrown travel destinations. One of the most popular mini-destinations in the province in which I live is the resort town of Gravenhurst, birthplace of a hero to the Chinese people, a man who is buried in the Mausoleum of Martyrs, Shi Cha Chang, China. (See: Norman Bethune: A Doctor Without Borders).

And China is the best example of the new global math. It seems that everyone is trying to get their market share of the growing middle class of Chinese travelers, also referred to as the “outbound China market.” That market alone, according to Lipman, will inject hundreds of millions of “Euros” [sic] into the economies of the world’s poorest countries. He makes reference as well to India which he describes as being “on a smaller but equally mega scale.” Well, the critical path in his reasoning is clear, as is the exponential effect. Therefore Kyrgyzstan (“The Switzerland of Central Asia”) will soon be on the world traveller’s must-see hotlist. As travel journalists therefore, we can begin to start dialoguing and developing a relationship with that nation’s tourism marketing authority, even though it is currently in its infancy. And dare we hope that the treasures of Afghanistan, a nation that for centuries benefitted from the civilizing effect of the caravan route, will soon be available to us? Or those of Iraq?

Lipman’s third issue seems to revolve around the role of the UNWTO itself and its mandate and obligation to influence and mediate (or mitigate) the shifting global market share and the rapidly growing tourism markets of poorer nations. Although poor, often desperately so, they are a growth industry in themselves and we as travel journalists need to anticipate and predict how we can eventually play a role in the socio-economic-political development of such developing nations.

But we also have to be ready, proactive even. Perhaps through our collective associations, like TravelJourno, we can make sure that such emerging nations understand clearly how we can also play a critical role in emerging travel market economies that support and promote the best of globalization. Perhaps we as journalists need to work more in concert with each other as opposed to marketing our wares and ourselves individually. In this regard, Lipman points to the international cooperative mega summits on such issues as the environment, poverty, international debt and trade deficits, and climate change, all of which will have a direct and indirect impact on travel and tourism by the injection of “multi trillion sums earmarked for poor countries” and such “simple” issues as more flights to poor countries in order for tourism to be both a development lifeline and mitigation.

I was fortunate to get a glimpse of this new global travel phenomenon first –hand on a media trip to Gujarat, India (an emerging destination-within-a-destination). My principal lesson in visiting Gujarat was actually a reawakening of my own need to apply a much broader frame of reference to any destination, whether it be tried and true or emerging. Before going to India and Gujarat, I consulted all the “mainstream” travel guides, which seemed to do their best to scare the pants off me, leading me to believe that I would be overwhelmed by India, would get sick, would be traumatized by the pollution and poverty, would be culturally isolated, and therefore should go with those eventualities in mind. It is my belief that these “expert” resources, which of course did provide me with a lot of good practical information, also predisposed me to encountering a faceless nation. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and the story that emerged from that trip was called The Faces of Gujarat: Experiencing India Subliminally.

So what does this mean to travel journalists, especially in North America? Well maybe it means, “arrive early” and travel in-depth. Maybe it means finding English language publishing outlets in China to which we can sell stories about Canada or the United States. Maybe there is a destination close to home that is twinned with a city in China ― and therein lies the story. Or maybe the story is titled “Chinatown USA-Canada” and has the kind interconnectivity that Lipman has identified.

“But the numbers of potential travelers are so huge and the logic of targeting tourism for development so pervasive that the long term growth prospects will remain substantial by any measure.” ― Geoffrey Lipman

This article was first published in the TravelJourno newsletter.

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