COVID-19 tourism should focus on domestic market, experts suggest

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MANITOULIN – Tourism operators on Manitoulin Island that have experienced lower-than-normal visitor counts this season may benefit from appealing to the needs of domestic consumers, say industry experts.

“I’d definitely expect, proportionally, that closer-to-home destinations will become more popular for the remainder of 2020 and probably most or all of 2021, at least until there’s some degree of political and legal freedom to cross borders,” said Mark Havitz, a recently-retired University of Waterloo professor at its school of recreation and leisure studies.

Several concerns drive tourist behaviour, especially in these times—financial anxieties about being able to afford a getaway, desires for freedom and a break from their everyday lives, balancing the risk of getting away with the risk of contracting the virus, as well as how partaking in a certain vacation may contribute to the way they present themselves to the world.

All of these factors will likely result in Ontario destinations seeing greater proportion of Ontarians than in recent years.

“I’m not sure there’s going to be a return to the ‘old normal’ until, if and when, there’s a vaccine for (COVID-19) or there’s strong evidence that you can’t re-contract it a second time,” said Dr. Havitz.

Drawing domestic tourists is not a simple matter of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Tourism operators have to understand the demographics of their usual market and find ways of addressing the concerns they may have.

“It comes down to understanding your customer base. When you’re a marketer, you need to know who your customers are—if your market is ‘everyone,’ you’ve got a serious problem with your approach,” said Ryerson University professor Rachel Dodds, former director of the Hospitality and Tourism Research Institute.

“Some groups of people will consider travelling close to home risky and others won’t, and you have to see which ones are novelty-seeking and which ones are looking for something safe and familiar,” added Dr. Havitz

Beyond the destination itself, it is crucial for both individual operators and tourism associations to inform their consumers about activities, places to eat and what restrictions are in place locally. This helps tourists decide whether or not a destination meets their risk tolerance.

Dr. Havitz added that people largely fall toward either end of a spectrum between those who are frustrated about being confined due to restrictions and others who are more frightened because of the virus.

“You need a very different marketing campaign for those two groups. For (the former), you want to focus on the activities and say ‘this might be your best option because you can’t get to your dream destination.’ For the other group you might want to say ‘this is close, convenient and safe and also has some fun stuff’,” Dr. Havitz said.

Dr. Dodds added that the desire for an escape has not disappeared; rather, people are seeking that escape in forms tailored to their individual needs. 

“You could travel internationally right now if you wanted, but you must quarantine for two weeks each way. That’s not as appealing,” said Dr. Dodds, former director of the Hospitality and Tourism Research Institute.

“We need to showcase that it’s easy to travel within Ontario. It may not be as affordable as Cuba but it’s easier than waiting in lines or quarantining,” said Dr. Dodds. “If operators can promote ease of access or safety or the unique experiences customers can have, that will appeal to a certain market segment.”

She acknowledged that many people are unaware of the domestic tourism options available but added that a copycat trend in tourism marketing has had negative effects on the industry.

“When promotional video came out, every place looked the same—somebody eating, someone in the water, attending a festival and laughing over a glass of wine—like it was a template. The unique selling points of destinations are gone,” she said.

One thing an operator may consider is publicizing the cleaning and safety protocol they have in place at their locations, even if these policies have been in place long before the outbreak of the virus.

Dr. Dodds said tourism has long tended to be a reactive industry, but she said the businesses that choose to be proactive will probably do okay. 

“Look at restaurants. The ones who adapted quickly are the ones doing good business now. The others just hoping COVID will end will probably go under.”

Domestic tourism can have significant benefits to the local economy and is more sustainable than flying. However, rules are required to set expectations on tourist behaviour and help preserve the environment, character and heritage of a destination, in addition to COVID-19 health and safety.

“It’s like when my daughter’s friends come into the house, they’re not allowed to jump on the sofa and they have to eat their snacks in the kitchen. (Destinations) should be saying ‘if you please choose to visit us, this is what you’ll have to do’,” she said.

Tourism has tended to operate on a ‘more is better’ philosophy before COVID-19, which can lead to overtourism, said Dr. Dodds. This has caused tension in numerous locations between local residents and tourists. 

Dr. Dodds said word-of-mouth and local residents tend to be the greatest advocates for drawing new tourists. By ensuring visitors remain respectful of the places they visit through enacting such codes of conduct, both local residents and tourism operators can benefit. 

A current example of rethinking the marketing of Manitoulin to embrace a nearby urban clientele who may wish to enjoy a holiday closer to home was completed last week by the Manitoulin Publishing Company Limited, also the publisher of this newspaper.

The tourism guide/lure book ‘This is Manitoulin’ was printed and distributed the earliest ever this year, according to Rick McCutcheon, publisher emeritus, who oversees the tourism guide magazine.

“To accommodate Maja Mielonen and her Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates (MICA) group, we pushed the print deadlines back three weeks this year because of a new show Ms. Mielonen was attending along with other partners in the Northeastern Ontario Tourism organization,” Mr. McCutcheon explained, “and so we then proceeded to complete our normal distribution, also the earliest ever, including our 2020 target market of Woodstock and Ingersoll in southwestern Ontario.”

“We felt pretty good about having done this so early this year and then COVID-19 hit,” Mr. McCutcheon continued. 

“After rethinking our obligations to the important Manitoulin Island tourism sector, we decided to pull back almost all of the magazines we had sent to information centres at US-Canada border crossings (which are closed for all but essential traffic) and find a more useful market in which to re-distribute them.”

“We chose North Bay,” Mr. McCutcheon continued, “because it’s relatively nearby and we felt people there may not want to stray too far from home for a holiday this year. By the end of June, we sent, via Canada Post directly to 7,000 households, that many magazines to a postal code area that our research determined was consistent with our marketing goals in terms of household income and family makeup.”