Futurist Dr Ian Yeoman talks about how the world economy has changed tourist identity and value patterns to something more simple which is accelerating the trend of inconspicuous consumption. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) plummeted the value of the High Net Worth population by US $32.8 trillion or 19.5% according to the World Wealth Report (2009) published by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, so the rich are less rich. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Flatters and Michael Wilmott argue that in most developed economies pre GFC, that the precession consumer behaviour was the product of 15 years of uninterrupted prosperity, driven by growth in real levels of disposal incomes, low inflation, stable employment and booming property prices. As such, new consumer appetites emerged in which the consumer could afford to be curious about gadgets and technology, in which tourists shelled out for enriching and fun experiences on exotic locations. Where they could afford several holidays a year and rent premium experiences such as hiring a Ferrari for the weekend in exotic locations like Japan. The GFC changed that, propelling tourist trends into slowdown, halting or even reserving the trajectory of growth in world tourism. So, is this a sample of the future, an era of the pension crisis, scarcity of oil, inflation and falling levels of disposal income in which tourism expenditure falls year on year? If so, what will the future tourist look like? Rather than having a fluid identity it will be more akin to simplicity.
During an economic slowdown, tourists tend to travel less, stay nearer home (increase in domestic tourism) and seek simplicity such as www.exploreworldwide.com value based holidays focusing on basic facilities, meeting locals, lots of free time and cheap in exotic locations throughout the world. This trend is accelerated in a scenario of falling incomes as a simple and functional product that will suffice. A simple identity means that offering advice becomes extremely important, whether its website's www.farecast.com which advises travellers of the optimal time to purchase an airline ticket or price comparison technologies which are found on many online booking services.
Combined with simplicity is thrift, in which tourists trade down. The Pod Hotel in Manhattan (www.thepodhotel.com), where accommodation usually costs US $300 a night, the Pod offer single beds from US $89 a night including bunk beds. The use of technology and social media assists tourists in the search for bargains, whether it is the use of argumented technologies in smart phones or contact lens which view availability and prices as we view them in the street or recommendations from a network of friends on social media sites. Thrift and simplicity also combine to drive the trend of Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR), as incomes fall getting back to basics and developing human relationships is very important, and the most important aspects of tourists' lives are friends and relatives.
Research by the Trajectory Group highlights that affluent consumers have revealed mounting dissatisfaction with excessive consumption. Many desire a wholesome and less wasteful life. As such, there is a desire to get back to nature, something that is tranquil, basic, rooted, human and simple (Yeoman 2008). As a consequence, the desire for more authentic and simple luxury experiences accelerates. An example of simple luxury, are tree house hotels which offer a unique experience in a natural setting. A new experience which is not seen as conspicuous consumption, but overtly inconspicuous. The Costa Rica Jungle Hotel is based in a rain forest around Arenal Volcano, surrounded by wildlife and birds (www.treehouseshotelcostarica.com/). Another example are hayvacations, where holidaymakers pay to stay and work on farms. Holidaymakers are turning to haycations to experience a world far removed from there daily life. At Stoney Creek Farm (www.stonycreekfarm.org), tourists are charged up to US $ 300 a night to work on the farm. This is an experience where tourists pick there own food, then cook it that evening and in a location with no cell phone coverage. During times of recession tourists are searching for back to basics experiences that are simple, with a sense of community and authenticity. About 50% of the tourists to Stoney Creek Farm are locals from the same county. This is a typical example of inconspicuous consumption and a desire for a simple identity.
In a simple identity, ethical consumption declines as paying a premium for a Starbucks coffee falls by the wayside, even if they use organic coffee which supports children in a third world country. From a tourism perspective, many of the ethical tourism projects in third world countries such as Africa and India which depend on independent travellers will suffer.
Tourists also have become canny at searching for bargains which economists call mercurial consumption, whether it is using price comparison software, or grabbing last minute offers from websites such as www.grabaseat.co.nz which offer last minute air travel deals to New Zealand consumers, or www.5pm.co.uk which offers diners the chance of discounted meals after 5pm that evening. Technology and social media network enabling purchasing strategies, further accelerate this trend of mercurial consumption.
Attitudes to travel also change, as tourism has to compete with other forms of leisure expenditure, whether it is the latest technology gadgets or virtual holidays. There is a generation of Japan youth who prefer their X-Box than climbing Mt Fuji. The desire for new experiences is more about insperience, where technology provides a better experience than in which consumers desire to bring top level experiences into their domestic domain.
There have been many predictions about the end of the high street travel agent in the last decade, but in fact during times of economic slowdown, when tourists are trying to unravel complexity and give up excess, they go back to travel agencies to reduce choice through an efficient filtering process and maximise time management. In addition, the desire for new experiences slows down as simple, repeat trips in usual places also increase according to Professor Dimitrios Buhalis of Surrey University.
In an economic slowdown, the role of authority changes as governments intervene to stabilise markets, bring assurance and confidence to markets, create jobs and increase public expenditure. As such, many countries have increased destination spending on marketing, particularly in domestic markets to entice tourists to stay at home this year, hence the term stayvacation as international markets fall. The tourism industry in particular, will turn to government to offer support and strategic leadership when the private sector is failing. Therefore, trust in authority increases and destination brands that offer value, honesty and can deliver on brand promise become more important.
New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world, whether it is bungee jumping, jet boating, bugging or skydiving. During an economic slowdown extreme–experience seeking stalls, as they are seen as expensive, frivolous, risky and environmentally destructive. Extreme adventure is partially about how tourists differentiates them. But conspicuous consumption is out of favour and the trend of simplicity and discretionary spend is in, so have we seen the last bungee jump in New Zealand as this trend is unlikely to bounce back (pardon the pun)?
The GFC has focused the consumer mind on the boardroom, in particular the executive bonuses of companies such as AIG, Royal Bank of Scotland or General Motors. Excess has become a dirty word, as such travel and the meetings industry have taken a hit as too many think that this sector is about excessive and unnecessary expenditure.
A simple identity is all about simplicity seeking, thrift, green yet mercurial tourists will hold tourism business and brands accountable. In a world of scarcity of resources this scenario becomes the norm.
Adapted from the forthcoming book: World Tourism in 2050 by Dr Ian Yeoman. Published by Chanelview Publications, Bristol.
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Ian publishes research paper on scenario planning and policy in the Journal of Tourism Futures here.
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The future of hospitality: Hotel Yearbook 2015.
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Previous News items can be found here.