Sunday, February 9, 2020

A short history of tourism through words

The guides really dressed up back then!
The guides really dressed up back then!
A good way to check the popularity of something is to count how often people talk about it or write about it, sort of like the trending hashtags on Twitter. If you want to see the trending over several decades, way before the Internet, then the best place to look for words would be in books! Google has indexed over 5 millions books going back a couple centuries and they have a really cool application called “Ngram” which lets you plot the frequency of usage of a word over a long period of time. To better grasp the concept, try the words “war” and “peace”, or “internet”, the graphs will be very obvious to understand.
Checking out words predominantly used in travel and tourism reflect quite accurately when they become popular and when some of them declined in use. First, I checked “holiday+vacation” going back to 1800 which showed an amazingly constant rise in popularity all the way through 1945.A trend undisturbed even by two world wars, then a decline from 1945 until 1971. That's the generation that stayed home and had a lot more babies … the baby boomers who in turn, from the seventies, became the generation who favored beaches, cruises and tourism in general. From 1971, the words “holiday+vacation” increased in popularity again at about the same pace they did between 1800 and 1945. The peak was reached in 2003 that does coincide with the beginning of the retirement age of the baby boomers. The word that rose in popularity over the same period that holiday + vacation declined was “education”. There is an important caveat about Google Ngram: the data set ends in 2008, so we cannot follow the evolution of words of the last decade.

The golden years of tourism 1971-2003

The social shift from the sixties to the seventies is well documented, but nothing specific would defines 1971 as the turning point of tourism, other than possibly the opening of Disney World in Florida. But somehow, 1971 marked the end of a 25-year decline in popularity and the beginning of 30 golden years as the frequency of many of the keywords associated with tourism and leisure all took off around 1971. “beach” remained within a neutral range from 1900, then began a steady climb in popularity from 1971 that lasted until about 2001. “family vacation” exhibited the same pattern between 1967 and 2003, “cruise” from 1972 to 2001, “exotic vacation” from 1975 to 2001 was not even a statistic before the 1950s. And so on. That period does define the golden years of tourism with the great expansion of air travel and the emergence of tourism nations like Thailand and Spain. These were the years when one could say “build an hotel and they will come”.

The 40-year rise and fall of travel agents

Checking the words “travel agent” shows their rise from the early seventies, as would be expected as travel and tourism resumed its growing popularity and travel agents become the inescapable middlemen between the consumers and the airlines and hotels. But their popularity tapered off with the emergence of the Internet in the mid 1990s, and perhaps significantly, the arrival of the first big search engine (Alta Vista) in 1996 coincides with the beginning of a long and steep decline of “travel agent” reflecting their diminishing role as consumers increasingly searched and booked their travel directly or through travel web sites. A confirmation of this trend can be seen by testing the words “internet travel” which rose steadily as “travel agent” faded away: consumers shifted their focus away from the middleman and directly toward the product itself.

The new industry model emerging after 2003

The last decade has seen the explosion of low cost travel and ever more lavish luxury travel, but with little or no growth in the mid-range which had driven the expansion of global tourism for the previous thirty years. The new market distribution and consumer preferences no longer fits within the traditional structure already in turmoil with the advent of the Internet. Economy passengers are more interested in the prices of LCC (Low Cost Carriers) than in the prestige and the minimalistic meals of legacy carriers. For both air tickets and, increasingly, accommodation, consumers are going direct, they don't need the travel agents anymore. Even OTA (Online Travel Agents), which initially grew by being more readily accessible and efficient than traditional travel agents, are at risk as their information value has been gradually eroded by the review sites leaving them with little more than a transaction process that is hardly worth the commission rates they still command from the old travel agent model. Those high commission rates are also driving the travel providers toward lower cost alternatives to process transactions while regaining control over advertising and promotion.

The model that is emerging is lean and efficient separating the promotion from the transaction. As transaction costs are minimal, promotion gets the lion's share of the commission previously paid to sales agents (traditional or OTA). FAM (familiarization) trips previously exclusively offered to travel agents are now pitched to bloggers and review sites instead. Following a trend that begun in the fashion industry, travel bloggers are also being compensated by the travel providers to promote their properties and destinations, either directly as a fee, or indirectly through paid advertising on the blogger's sites.

Another blog post will explore the future of tourism.

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