How The Web is Revolutionizing Cultural Tourism

Cultural Tourism isn’t new. Tourism on its own is one of the worlds largest industries. And some studies will even say that it’s in comparison the world’s largest employer. Tourism touches all walks of life – ranging from the wealthiest individuals sitting in a air conditioned bus driving through a safari to the single-mother of four selling wooden crafts at a market. It’s an industry that truly impacts all of us. But what’s special about cultural tourism and what’s exciting about cultural tourism is the connection. The human connection.

It’s why we travel. To feel connected for one moment to something new. To something different – to view a life that’s not so similar to our own. To experience a culture in a way that touches our hearts and our souls. This connection is something that drives us. We all crave it – some more so than others. It’s embedded within our social DNA to crave connection – We’re social by nature. We all want to be connected to something. Whether it’s a connection to the place our ancestors came from or a connection to a place our friends have recommended. These connections are subtle yet powerful enough to influence our travel decisions.  These connections are not limited to travel and can also be attributed to products, service and the businesses offering them.

But how does the web fit into this idea of a cultural tourism connection? How does something online – something so impersonal fit into the mix? Well you see it all ties back to the human connection. Here are two websites that are truly changing the way we travel while also showcasing a shift in human behavior.

The first is Airbnb.com. This site allows people to list their homes, apartments, cottages and spare bedrooms on a site similar to kijiji or craigs list where travelers can purchase a night, weekly or month stay. The guest or traveler then has an opportunity to meet their host and if lucky even receive local expertise, flavor and knowledge along with local insigh. Since it’s inception there have been more than 2 million nights purchased through the Airbnb and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Here’s a nifty little infographic they released after celebrated their 1,000,000th booking.

So what does Airbnb have to do with Cultural Tourism? For me, two things:

  1. Disruption is happening in the Tourism Industry.
  2. Cultural Tourism is alive and well.

When I speak of disruption – I’m referring to more than just AirBnB and instead referring to an industry wide shift. I’m talking about the evolution and development of websites like like AirBnB, Jetsetter,  Groupon, Foursquare and TripIt – Just to name a few. You see, all of these sites present opportunities along with certain threats to tourism operators and stakeholders. I mean, we look at the Groupon business model and they are often found driving businesses value into the floor by taking scary margins. Often times they are found bringing coupon hunters into the doors of these businesses rather than customers who could potentially become repeat business. While it’s great for the consumer – The economics simply don’t work for most businesses. Yet trust me, some kid is sitting in their basement with a laptop coming up with a way that both sides can win in this market. Disruption is here and it’s going to continue for many years to come.

Just a few months ago I spoke with a hotel operator who told me he didn’t want to deal with the digital world. He wanted to stay loyal to his traditional efforts and focus on just running his hotel. In a more professional way, I told him he had no choice. Whether he ignores digital or embraces it – The world around him and his hotel is indifferent. We are all living in a digital world. And this operator quickly believed me when I showed him some of the reviews on Trip Advisor that were left by his customers. When he saw people saying their hotel had poor service yet beautiful rooms.  He wanted to intervene. He wanted to improve his business and figure out how he could connect with these customers. In that moment, he realized that people were talking about his business and he had no control over it. He realized that he couldn’t control the message but by simply responding he had an opportunity to influence it. The light bulb went off.

The entire concept of AirBnB is built around developing a cultural experience for travelers. In this model you could potentially spend your day with a local – eating local food – enjoying local activities – receiving local advice leading to you drink a local wine before falling asleep in a locals bed. Now sure, with the right moves on the dance floor the last part could happen almost anywhere.But what’s special about all of this is the connection the traveler will have with the destination when they depart.

Now, this may scare a lot of hotels and even tour guides. But recognize that this is the world we live in. A site called crowd surfing has a similar concept except you sleep on a locals couch for free. I mean, if that’s not enjoying a truly cultural experience – I don’t know what is. You’re living right in the heart of the destination with the locals. And these are the cultural experiences that more and more people are craving. The opportunity to tell a local about their grandfather who was brought up just down the street from them or a friend who spent their summers here with her dad.  These cultural experiences are powerful. So powerful that they need to be shared…

And that’s where site #2 comes in….Facebook. Have any of you heard of it? I would assume so.

Clearly Facebook is the king of Social Networks. But lets stop for a second. Let’s break those two words apart. Social – Network. We break that apart and the key here that we need to focus on is social. It’s the key in this topic because as I said earlier, humans are social by nature. We need crave a social connection.

Let’s think about the process for a second. You’re in a country that you’re unfamiliar with but see something spectacular. You enjoy it for a second and then without even realizing the impact of what you are about to do – You snap a picture. Then you share that picture with your 348 friends on Facebook and they too get to experience what you just did. Maybe not in the same way – But they’ve felt it…A connection to you and from you a connection to that place. And that’s the power of Facebook in Cultural Tourism.

A social connection is why conferences, social events and excursions still sell. We attend them to enjoy a social setting that empowers us to find knowledge, insights and a human connection that could forever influence our future. The power of the web really lies in the ability to further promote destinations while also creating a more user friendly experience while there in the flesh. The web gives us an opportunity to travel and never be alone. To always be connected and to always have an opportunity to truly experience the culture of a destination.

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