Image by S Migaj

Mode of meaningful travel

Published on Marketing Magazine.

For decades, tourism has been defined by volume – with copy-and-paste itineraries, cheap flights, and more affordable accommodation, making frequent trips possible. Outbound departures by Singapore residents grew year-on-year from 7.7 million in 2011 to 10.6 million in 2019.

Then came the pandemic.

It’s only with the recent Vaccinated Travel Lane roll-outs that international tourism has begun to pick up again, with pent-up demand causing flights to sell out within hours.

But travel is at a real inflection point, and businesses in the sector face important decisions. As they rush to welcome back tourists and begin their business recovery after two painful pandemic years, they must recognise the dynamics have fundamentally changed.

The pandemic has been a period of reflection and introspection for people, businesses, and countries as a whole. After all, incessant travel has taken a toll on our planet, and a tendency to prioritise tourism dollars over residents’ wellbeing has destroyed the cultural fabric of some of the world’s most cherished destinations.

Kyoto is one such city where residents enjoyed the reprieve from inconsiderate crowds of tourists, with many locals expressing how they are prepared to forgo the $3 billion in annual tourism spending if it means maintaining the city’s tranquil culture.

Similarly, after seeing how natural habitats thrived thanks to a break from tourist crowds, Thailand announced it will now close its national parks for two to four months each year. 

But this mindset shift is not just limited to the supply side. It’s also changing behaviours in demand as many travellers are rethinking their whole approach for the better.

So how should travel businesses adapt to this shift?

At its heart, travel has always been about exploring and connecting with different cultures. Intentional travel simply sets a new and meaningful standard that prioritises balance – finding new, fun and authentic experiences that don’t take away anything from the environment, but also helps the development of local communities, allowing traditions and heritage to flourish.

Local Alike, a Thailand-based company, offers community-based and responsible tourism experiences where travellers can contribute to the preservation of the environment, culture, and local ways of life. They work closely with local villagers to co-create itineraries, funnelling 70% of the money back into those communities.

In Australia, we recently witnessed a historic moment with the Daintree hand back – the government returning Daintree National Park to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, with the aim of making indigenous communities tourism leaders.

Seek Sophie, in Singapore, is another example. Started by a few friends who believe travel can change the world for the better, it works to deepen relationships with communities, and supporting small local businesses. The philosophy behind its business is “leaving places better than we found them”.

“That’s ultimately down to a personal belief that business should and can be used as a force for good,” says Jacinta Lim, co-founder of Seek Sophie.

“I have seen over and over in my travels, and in my work, how someone starts off as a porter, then works his/her way up to become a guide, then starts a small tourism business which then employs others in the local communities, where otherwise there would be no jobs.

“From a traveller’s perspective, by supporting these small local businesses, they play a part in helping develop local communities – it’s a very powerful and simple way to create a positive impact.”

The rise of community-based tourism is not only limited to smaller, independent travel players. We saw Marriott International launch Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy in Asia Pacific – a programme that allows guests to forge connections with local communities for meaningful travel whether at home or abroad. Some examples include coral planting in Okinawa or learning to prepare local meals from surplus foods which are then packed safely and delivered to the most needy across Bali.

When asked what excites her most about the future of travel, Lim says it’s the sheer number of unique domestic travel operators that have popped up over the past two years.

“Due to the pandemic, they’re using all their creative juices to come up with really fascinating and authentic domestic experiences – like being able to do a safari to Singapore’s Northern Islands; a local bee farm where you taste durian honey; and being able to see Singapore’s hidden kelongs up close. And it’s not just Singapore – it’s Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and many others.”

And one way for tourists to truly experience a country’s culture is to simply stay longer. The growth of remote work has permitted a more flexible and anchor-less way of living, blurring the lines between work and vacation.

Destinations and hotels across the globe are already racing to become remote work-ready. Thirty two countries, and counting, now offer some form of digital nomad visa.

Hotels are promoting “workcation” packages that include access to private working spaces, high-speed Wi-Fi, and office essentials. And national parks in Japan and elsewhere are boosting internet access in a push to attract teleworkers.

This shift has also revived and transformed the role of the travel agent, especially given the hassle of post-pandemic travel (COVID tests, quarantines, and mountains of documentation).  

The Nomadify platform connects people with remote job opportunities and expert advice. And programmes such as Family Workation are offering co-working retreats complete with affordable childcare and schooling, so parents don’t have to miss out on the remote work revolution.

The days of limitless, seemingly guilt-free travel, are behind us as we expect to see a growing shift from high volume to high value, and from “me” to “us” – where the most rewarding and sustainable form of travel will come when we spend more time immersing ourselves in communities and creating a positive impact.

To learn more, download the Future of Travel Report that explores this hopeful turnaround – unlocking key opportunities for disruptive growth, and outlining specific ways for businesses to take action.