Can purposeful travel help your destination thrive?

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Michelle Starin
by Michelle Starin

Purposeful travel can help your destination appeal to visitors—while also helping preserve its local authenticity.

While research firms provide the numbers that back up travel predictions and emerging trends, it’s social media that brings to life what these numbers mean. Through platforms like Instagram and TikTok it’s evident that long before COVID-19 changed the tourism landscape, travelers were embracing the notion of more purposeful travel.

Let’s go back a moment to when we saw lines of eager influencers waiting their turn in front of iconic backdrops. Spots like the What Lifts You mural in Nashville, the Urban Light exhibit on Wilshire Boulevard and LACMA in LA, and the Washington Street view of the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo. It wasn’t long until the desire for proof of being well-traveled (with a strong eye for aesthetics) led to the decimation of entire poppy fields in California.

Photos were tagged with exact locations, proving that the photographer had not only gotten the shot, but had done whatever it took to travel there.

But long before COVID-19 changed the tourism landscape, travelers were changing their own approach to seeing the world. Where once there was clout in getting the shot, a groundswell of not getting the shot took over. Exact location tags were replaced with vague references to places “somewhere in the world”—or simply “not telling.”

Travelers had begun to travel with, and for, purpose. COVID-19 slowed all travel (purposeful or not), but as travel numbers rebound to pre-pandemic levels (72% of respondents plan to spend more money on domestic travel and 64% plan to spend more money on international travel than they have in the previous year*) the desire for more intentional and purpose-driven travel has increased. According to the 2022 American Express Travel Trends Report, 62% of travelers agree that they want to be more thoughtful about where and how they travel.

In the Power of Purposeful Travel survey, Capital One found that 70% of respondents said it’s important to have a “purposeful experience” as part of their travels. The same study found that travel goals predominantly include exploring culture through food, becoming a more culturally aware global citizen, and learning a new language.

The financial benefit of increased tourism is clear, but at the tipping point of over-tourism, we see declining benefits. Over-tourism can be seen in the degradation of cultural landmarks, increased traffic ultimately allowing fewer people in, and, in worst-case scenarios, short-term rentals that cause housing markets to become unaffordable for locals.

This change in travel intention means travel organizations and brands have an opportunity to forge a brand-new connection with travelers, while at the same time ensuring that the authenticity of their destination isn’t diluted—and that communities can thrive, rather than becoming overburdened (or even priced out). As travel marketers in 2022, we not only have the potential to connect with consumers in a more relevant and meaningful way; we also must do right by our residents, local businesses, and other entities that benefit from avoiding over-tourism.

So, what can tourism organizations do to speak more meaningfully to purpose-driven travelers?

Communicate your destination’s newer reasons for being: While destinations may be renowned for specific landmarks or history, remember that you’ve evolved with the times. As an example, while it’s common to see tourists in Boston following the Freedom Trail, it’s worth reminding them that the city has become one of the most diverse in the region. In fact, today its declining non-Hispanic white population makes it a “majority-minority” city (source: Census). Boston has done a great job highlighting this by sharing videos focused on lesser-visited neighborhoods. Rather than sending travelers to Faneuil Hall, visitors are now trying the restaurants and shops that exist in places like Hyde Park and East Boston.

Highlight the spaces and places that make a destination home: Tourists are eager to connect with the community when they travel. Consider broadening the visuals used to promote your destination by adding those made and produced by locals highlighting the areas that they consider representative of the place they call home.

Highlight authentic experiences that create a connection with the community: Consider creating a connection between travelers and local offerings by highlighting only-in-destination offerings that allow travelers to align in a belief-driven way. These types of connections help bring loyalty and advocacy. Portland Maine hosts storytelling events, through a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering local youth to share their diverse voices. Those seeking a unique experience in this city (otherwise known for seafood and lighthouses) will certainly find one by planning their travels around these community-focused events.

The idea of “purposeful travel” is nuanced, with legs extending in a variety of places—for instance, the growing priority being placed by travelers on awareness of the environment and sustainability. A recent study by Booking.com study on post-pandemic travel expectations found that 53% of travelers were seeking to travel “more sustainably” in the future, now that COVID-19 has helped them see the impact humans have on the environment. We’ve already begun seeing young travelers choosing destinations based on the environmental impact of getting there. Trading airline travel for more climate-friendly transportation like trains or multi-person road trips is top of mind for this cohort, making it more important than ever to speak to your drive markets.

Most of all, remember: appealing to the purposeful traveler takes time, and inauthentic attempts will be noticed—and seen through. Creating a quick marketing plan without the passion and belief behind it won’t work. Be intentional. Find what makes your destination genuinely worthy of attracting this purpose-driven traveler, and communicate that.

* 2022 American Express Travel Trends Report